Hi Reddit! My name’s Brie, I’m an award-winning physiologist, a published scientific author, and my love of sea turtles has forced me out of my small hometown in Iowa and required me to travel all over the country, and now the world, in search of education, professional opportunities, and answers to these questions: why are sea turtles struggling and what can we do to help them? I started out as a sea turtle rehabilitation intern helping one turtle at a time, but now my work uses hormones and other circulating proteins to develop tools for sea turtle conservationists, and my sea turtle “pregnancy test” has been praised by experts in my field for its conservation impacts. Thanks for your interest in my work and ask me anything!


Hey all! Thanks for all the great questions over the weekend! I'm signing off here but feel free to inbox me if if you ever have more interest in my research or turtles in general!

If you haven't yet please take a look at my blog at briemyre.blogspot.com for more on my research and what I'm up to next!

Comments: 64 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

Renfah8710 karma

Thanks OP for the AMA. I have 2 questions:

1) What are you planing to do after this?

2) I imagine the sea turtle field is pretty small. Any chance you know any of the people involved with the video showing an extraction of a plastic straw from a sea turtles nose that's made its rounds on Reddit?

seaturtlebrie5 karma

I'm actually preparing to leave for Costa Rica in about 10 days to start sampling for my PhD project. I am super excited to practice my Spanish! I am actually teaming up with Chris Figgener, who's video you referred to, we are doing a big collaborative study where she will be doing genetics and migration studies on the same turtles that I am doing a variety of endocrine tests on to learn more about how females physiologically prepare to lay so many eggs while also having to compensate for a costly migration to breeding grounds. I am also doing ultrasonography and attempting to track fat metabolism. The ultimate goals are to develop useful tests for recent feeding, this will be a valuable tool to non-invasively find out if a turtle has recently eaten. To learn more, check out my blog www.briemyre.blogspot.com and my video on my go fund me page: www.gofundme.com/seaturtlebrie. Happy to take more questions on the topic if you're interested!

MildlySuspiciousBlob6 karma

My father said his college biology animal physiology professor's graduate thesis was basically documenting the physiological effects of injecting turtles with different drugs.

I guess I should ask a question. What ecological role do turtles play? Also, what do you find most interesting about turtles specifically?

seaturtlebrie5 karma

As turtles go through their life cycle they have different ecological roles. When they're eggs incubating on the beach they are a critically important food source for a number of predators both on land and in the water, so in that way they are considered keystone as a food source. As they age, they can provide important roles to corals (Hawksbill sea turtles manage sponge populations in the tropics to allow for healthy coral growth). They also are important for managing jellyfish populations, as leatherback sea turtles have specialized cartilaginous esophageal protection to allow them to eat LITERS of jellyfish a day without being stung! (Photo: http://www.seaturtle.org/glossary/images/152.jpg).

For me, the most amazing thing about sea turtles is their ability to survive. I have worked in several sea turtle hospitals during my undergrad and graduate career and they are tanks. Sea turtles are frequently hit by boats, I even worked with one that had its shell shattered to the point of needing 11 bars to piece it back together like humpty dumpty. It's amazing what they can do in a rehab setting, but even more amazing is that I've seen wild turtles surviving and reproducing while missing limbs, showing horrific boat scars from propellers cutting into the body cavity through the shell (which is fused to the ribs and spine). Read more about one turtle here: http://briemyre.blogspot.com/2014/06/she-survived-loggerheads-story.html. Read also about a leatherback hatchling that survived a vicious raccoon attack: http://briemyre.blogspot.com/2014/06/my-first-leatherback-and-one-nests-story.html. They have survived 120 million years of evolution, largely unchanged, until they have declined over the past century due to a variety of factors.

One amazing success story is that of the conservation efforts for the green turtle in Florida, which has been making record numbers in the past 10 years, is now showing positive signs toward recovery.

MildlySuspiciousBlob2 karma

How can boaters prevent sea turtles from being injured?

seaturtlebrie2 karma

It can be hard to avoid at times, but primarily it's by awareness and keeping your distance if you see a turtle near a boat launch or close to shore. Of course, never feed wild animals, including sea turtles, because they have a tendency to approach boats and get themselves injured if they recognize humans and boats as a food source.

seaturtlebrie1 karma

Also, I'd be interested in the professor's name because I know many scientists that have done studies like what you describe and I wonder if I'm familiar with their work!

MildlySuspiciousBlob1 karma

My dad says it was professor Stuart Ware.

seaturtlebrie1 karma

I don't know his work off the top of my head but I will see if I can track down his thesis - I am always interested in toxicology studies!

FanOfGoodMovies3 karma

Do turtles use seasonal cues from the sun or moon in their reproductive cycle? Does light pollution interfere with the signal to begin production of this protein?

seaturtlebrie3 karma

Yes, the change in photoperiod is the starting trigger for reproduction. Nice question! It starts the cascade with gonadotropin releasing hormone which activates the gonadotropins to induce estradiol production. Estradiol is the trigger for vitellogenin production by the liver which is the protein that's used as a nutrient source by the developing embryos.

seaturtlebrie2 karma

I'm not aware of any studies on the effects of light pollution on adults prior to the nesting season, but it has been shown the white lights can scare nesting females and cause them to abort a nesting attempt. What is also really well documented is the impact on hatchlings which use the light of the moon to guide them to the ocean for the first time. Lights disturb them and make it confusing for them to navigate, as they are thought to still be imprinting at this stage and developing a sense of direction. This imprinting is thought to be facilitated by glucocorticoids.

RoosterSamurai2 karma

Is it expensive to conduct a pregnancy test on a sea turtle?

seaturtlebrie3 karma

It is a lot cheaper than the current methodology - purchase an ultrasound machine for thousands of dollars. It does require a bit of technical skill, though. It's also more useful than a traditional human pregnancy test because we can potentially PREDICT if a given female will reproduce months prior to the reproductive season. I was recently able to travel to Lima, Peru to announce this discovery to the sea turtle world at the International Sea Turtle Symposium. We are always willing to collaborate with other projects to make the technology useful for other types of studies.

SeriesOfAdjectives2 karma

Could you give us a simplified version of the pregnancy test ("explain like I'm five" on this site) and a more scientific one for bio nerds like myself? :)

seaturtlebrie6 karma

Absolutely! Basically, my master's work involved measuring a specific protein that reproductively active female sea turtles make in order to provide a nutrient source for her babies in the egg yolk. Females are thought to begin producing this protein 8 months or so prior to the reproductive season, so it has the potential to be useful as a predictor of an upcoming nesting season.

More technical: The protein that we are measuring is an egg-yolk precursor protein that represents an essential source of oviparous vertebrate maternal investment. Sea turtles do not provide parental care for their offspring, so this represents an essential way in which a female contributes to the success for her offspring during their first few days of life, including the "frenzied" run down the beach and out to open sea. What I was able to show in my recent study, "Ovarian Dynamics in Free-Ranging Loggerhead Sea Turtles" (In Press), was that females that had no signs of ovarian activity (via gonadal ultrasonography) did not produce this protein within detection limits, but females that had active ovaries had very high concentrations circulating in the blood. This is a new finding which needs further testing but we are hopeful that it will provide a new technology to physiologists, ecologists and conservation biologists seeking to know more about the populations of turtles in their water! Stay tuned for the publication in Copeia!

plasmidon1 karma

Wow OP,that's amazing! I have just one question:

What are the practical applications for this,and how can it be used to help the conservation effort of many endangered sea turtle species?

seaturtlebrie1 karma

Hi thanks for the question and the enthusiasm! I've answered this question in other threads but if there's something more specific you'd like me to comment on please clarify.

qrkycuriosity1 karma

"After his little photo shoot, we let the hatchling crawl toward the ocean to imprint, and then away he went." ^ from your blog that you linked.

(One day I'll learn to edit on the app.)

What do you mean by "imprint"?

Thanks for this AMA and all your work! It's also nice to hear that my $5/small box of compostable straws is worth it. After seeing that video last year I've done my best to avoid single use plastic ware and straws, so lay people do pay attention and care about your passions :) Next up is remembering my reusable bags!

seaturtlebrie2 karma

THANK YOU for reducing your use of plastic straws! Also thanks for checking out my blog! Turtles have advanced navigation systems in their brain that have to be "set" when they first leave the egg. So what they do is identify the horizon by looking for the brightest light (which in a human-free world is the moon since they usually hatch at night) then crawl down the beach toward the ocean, this crawl is thought to be an important developmental step in identifying the coordinates of home in turtle brains so that they can find their breeding ground again one day in 15-30 years no matter where they go in the world in the meantime!

Gregolas7891 karma

What's the most interesting place your job has taken you?

seaturtlebrie2 karma

The nice thing about sea turtle work is that it REQUIRES you to travel, especially when you're from the Midwest as I am. I've worked with sea turtles in Cape Cod, MA, Topsail Island, North Carolina, New Orleans, Mississippi Gulf Coast, south Florida, and I also have a HUGE upcoming project in Costa Rica, I leave to start taking blood samples and ultrasound images in just about a week! Check out more info and videos on my blog, and if you're interested in seeing photos check back later in the summer. www.briemyre.blogspot.com

Ribbonz31 karma

Are Sea Turtles endangered in anyway? If so, what can we do to help them?

seaturtlebrie2 karma

Yes, all sea turtles are protected by the government and can use our help. One critically important way you can help sea turtles is by refusing single-use plastic (straws, plastic cutlery, plastic bags) whenever possible. My collaborator on my new project starting this summer went viral for her video last summer in which she removed a plastic straw from the nose of a sea turtle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw. Also, please consider buying reusable grocery bags and refusing plastic bags whenever possible - sea turtles frequently mistake plastic bags in the ocean as food and then die as a result of impaction or physical injury or infection, they also get entangled in it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfqtYq-lIt4. Please also consider donating to conservation and science projects, sea turtle rehabilitation facilities or NGOs that monitor and protect beaches around the world.

Also, if you happen to live in a place where you boat in the ocean in the tropics or subtropics, please follow speed restriction laws and keep an eye out for sea turtles, especially during the warm summer months.

Finally, please VOTE for legislators who promote funding for science and wildlife conservation. Tell your friends all this too!!!

IronyGiant1 karma

As a child, I lived near and visited regularly a beautiful person named Ila Loetscher, also know as a "turtle lady" of sorts. She inspired me, even at a young age, to garner and foster respect and admiration for not only sea turtles, but animal life in general. Did you ever meet her or study her conservation work? What inspired you to "go into" the study of sea turtles?

seaturtlebrie1 karma

Actually, yes I have. She founded the sea turtle organization on South Padre. Her work is credited in helping with the improvement of the Kemp's ridley population. I started loving sea turtles because I adopted a red-eared slider freshwater turtle from my uncle when I was a kid and I had her for 16 years, she just passed away this spring. I miss her so much! As I learned more about turtles in general, I started to wonder about studying sea turtles as a career, you can check out the full story here http://m.nonpareilonline.com/news/local/lynx-grad-plans-trip-to-costa-rice-for-turtle-research/article_08f80e86-2c28-526d-87ff-e50eda56abbf.html?mode=jqm

SecretlyBatgirl1 karma

no offense but what exactly is the target demographic of this product what does this have to offer?

seaturtlebrie1 karma

I went into depth on this in another response so check it out there. It's not a product that I would necessarily look to market to the general public but a possible tool that can be used for species other than sea turtles and for researchers that study sea turtles in physiology or even ecology based research. Thanks for the interest!

zuqui231 karma

How many species of turtles can be found in U.S waters ?

seaturtlebrie4 karma

Five species, including the species that's smallest and most endangered in the world, the Kemp's ridley sea turtle. We also have the loggerhead, green, leatherback and hawksbill.

jptech951 karma

Oh wow this is so cool!! I am an Ecosystems and Human Impact major but I especially find animal behavior to be super interesting. Are there any little known behaviors for sea turtles? Something like cooperative hunting, interspecies interactions, or even mating behavior? Thanks so much for this AMA!

seaturtlebrie2 karma

Excellent, good for you! I know some of the greats in the human interactions with sea turtles area! Absolutely, sea turtles are very interesting and complex creatures. You may know that females haul out on the beach to dig a hole in the sand and deposit her eggs, but one interesting behavior of leatherback sea turtles is that they make an "orientaion circle" on their way back to the ocean, we think they do this to assist with navigation. Sea turtles are largely solitary, but the ridley turtles (genus Lepidochelys) have mass nesting behavior in which many females haul out in synchrony to nest in hundreds to thousands. We didn't know about this mass nesting behavior as biologists until recently!

seaturtlebrie2 karma

Regarding mating behavior, both male and female sea turtles mate with many partners, but both often make long migrations to breeding grounds. It is largely supported that females return to the general area in which she hatched. Some species have higher site fidelity than others, however.

cracklovelove1 karma

What should you do if you accidentally catch a sea turtle fishing. Do you call a rescue group? Do you just try to get the hook out as best you can? Do they need to be in water? Do they overheat easily?

seaturtlebrie1 karma

If the hook is imbedded in the beak or in the throat it's best to call a rescue if there's one near you or you will want to contact the wildlife department in your state. Sea turtles can sustain serious injuries even with small hooks, so it's better safe then sorry. Consider using circle hooks if possible, a colleague of mine has shown that circle hooks are much less likely to hook a sea turtle as opposed to J hooks.

seaturtlebrie1 karma

They don't need to be in water because they breathe air with lungs, but they are ectotherms so they can overheat. You will want to get permission from authorities to bring it to your and they will advise you on their protocol, which can vary by state.

My2ndAngelic1 karma

What inspired you and what encourage you to develop the pregnancy test for sea turtles?

seaturtlebrie2 karma

Well it actually was an exciting study from a study that was looking at other things. We were just trying to track the reproductive cycle using the protein, but didn't expect to find reproductively inactive females to compare with, so it was more of a pleasant surprise! But, now that we've had this finding we are excited to continue to refine it! I've always loved hormones and a dream of mine has been to look at the reproductive physiology of sea turtles, I always say that I fell in love with endocrinology just as deeply as I have the turtles, I love what I do and am very fortunate to have had the opportunities that have led me to this day!

tribalDemon1 karma

Hi Brie, thank you for the AMA,

My question is, how can this "pregnancy test" be used to observe and potentially increase the endangered sea turtle populations?

seaturtlebrie2 karma

I apologize for being delayed in getting back to you! Here's the idea: the pregnancy test is the first step in a much larger project that's all part of my PhD. We're trying to figure out what a healthy female turtle needs in order to produce hundreds of eggs in a short period of time. There are beaches around the world which have a higher incidence of disease or just lower reproductive success in females. If we can define a healthy turtle and figure out why some females are healthier than others, then we can manage the habitat to try to make it more conducive to healthy turtles which translates to more babies. Poor quality nutrition in sea turtles has shown to cause females to skip years in which they might otherwise nest, it slows the development to sexual maturity. We also think it results in less healthy babies, but we need to find that out as well. Thanks for your question!

fat_saint1 karma

In my country, Olive Ridleys are apparently declining in numbers. So are other species but I can't remember the names. As an average citizen, how can one raise awareness for the conservation of marine life? We've got dolphins, porpoises, turtles, whales, etc. being washed up on the shores of our cities. Is there something one can do, without any help from a governing body, to maintain this sensitive ecosystem?

Also, your work is very inspiring. Wish more people care about our planet and its beautiful creatures. :)

seaturtlebrie2 karma

Hi! Thanks for your question, it definitely touches my heart! There are tons of ways that citizen scientists have helped marine life. I am not sure what the set up is like where you are, but in many places there are non profit organizations dedicated to uniting communities to preserve their natural resources including marine life. I would do some searching to see if you could team up with organizations that may be standing. You can do things as small as organizing a beach clean up or organizing some presentations of educational material on the problem to present to schools, you will want to try to identify what the biggest problems are in your region and design a strategy that addresses it, no matter how small, I think you will be surprised at how a relatively small gesture can inspire others and grow exponentially!

Travitech1 karma

What made you love turtles so much? Also, what is the next big goal you are trying to achieve in your research?

I want to thank you for your efforts! Turtles have always been one of my favorite animals and to see someone protecting them is awesome!

seaturtlebrie2 karma

Turtles and sea turtles have fascinated me my whole life, I've wanted to be a scientist since I was a little kid. My dad has some hilarious stories about me as a little kid explaining to him why the Santa thing wasn't logical and listing the reasons why. Turtles are fascinating from an evolutionary standpoint because they really haven't changed much in 120 million years. They are so ancient looking and they have survived so many massive changes in the world climates and ocean ecosystems and yet some still survive. It's amazing how we've totally destroyed the earth for them in recent years and yet some still survive. Also, as large and imposing as they are, most are not truly aggressive, they seem to have kind souls. When you look into a turtle's eyes it's like they can see right through you. As a scientist, I know that sounds crazy, but all I'm saying is they are amazing creatures to behold. There's nothing out there quite like sea turtles and we need to learn everything we can in order to help them and to document everything we can about them in case we fail.

seaturtlebrie2 karma

My next big goal is to develop some non-invasive blood tests that will determine if a turtle has recently eaten and I want to define ways to measure body fat physically on a turtle in a way that describes how healthy a turtle is. As of right now biologists have no standardized way to do that and it's so important that we all do it the same way so we can compare the health of animals in different regions of the world. My next project in Costa Rica is huge because my collaborator and I are working with the same turtles but doing different types of analyses so we will get tons of physiology data, genetics, stable isotopes, ultrasound data, morphometrics and migration data all on the same turtles in the same region at the same time, we are hoping to produce maybe 6 publications or more from this field season alone!

tregorman1 karma

did you see finding dory? i thought it was quite good. that also had sea turtles in it.

seaturtlebrie1 karma

I'm planning to get out to see it tonight, no spoilers please! Haha! The one thing about Finding Nemo that was disappointing to me was that the animators worked with biologists to keep everything really accurate in terms of the biology of the organisms they were depicting, except the sea turtles. I still love the movie, don't get me wrong, it's just that turtles don't exhibit any parental care, especially dads. I suppose it may not be a very heartwarming story that way though!

soulmeetsmolly31 karma

Do you squee all day, or just most of the time? <3

seaturtlebrie2 karma

When I'm out doing fieldwork, all day. When I'm stuck in the lab or teaching classes, just sometimes. Haha!

Veshtarii1 karma

Hi OP! As a biologist who used to work at the SA Zoo, at TAMU and in multiple vets offices, I find your new test fascinating. Could this new test be used with other species such as inland turtles and tortoises? What about other egg-laying creatures such as birds? I've seen far too many egg-bound animals that had calcified the eggs due to the owners not knowing/caring about the health of their animal die either during or after surgery due to the trauma or from sepsis and would love to see this technology go into general use in vets offices. Do you think that could be a possibility in the future?

seaturtlebrie2 karma

Great question! It could definitely be useful for other reptiles and in fact any oviparous vertebrate. The key is going to be using species that shut down yolk protein production during non reproductive years, which will need to be tested for each species but is definitely possible. I think it could be just as easily available to vet offices as a thyroid hormone test because it uses the exact same ELISA techniques and wouldn't take any more time. I think it's important to note that lots of vet offices can use ultrasound to find out once an animal is actually laden with eggs but the useful aspect of this is that you could actually determine which of your animals will be receptive to breeding in the upcoming year potentially months prior! Thanks for your question. I started my career as a reptile intern at a zoo so zookeepers have a special place in my heart!

Troppin0 karma

Sea turtle eggs are laid by the female on the beach, with the male coming later to fertilize them.

Do you find this to be beautifully tragic or tragically beautiful?

seaturtlebrie6 karma

Actually, males and females mate in the water several weeks prior to the nesting season and the females hang out near the nesting beaches until ovulation, fertilization of the eggs. All this happens before the eggs are shelled and then laid. Females are also able to store sperm and mate with many males, resulting in multiple paternity within a given nest. About female sea turtle reproduction, I would say it's tragically beautiful, because it's a unique reproductive strategy among reptiles to lay 100+ eggs in a few short months, and the females metabolize their fat stores and extract calcium from their own bones in order to produce these eggs.