Monday, April 29, 2013

Rozalia Project Intern Blog: A leatherback turtle's necropsy inspiring action

This intern blog comes from Shira Catlin. Shira is a sophomore at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine where is is working towards a BA in Human Ecology with a focus in Marine Science and a teaching certification in elementary education. Shira was recommended by our partners at the Boat US Foundation where she also interns and we are excited to have her onboard!

I grew up in Western Massachusetts, surrounded by mountains, rivers, and lakes, but unfortunately not the ocean. Through family vacations and class field trips I was fortunate enough to spend time on the coast learning about periwinkles, humpback whales, and phytoplankton.

Through my studies at College of the Atlantic I get to work with a marine mammal research group called Allied Whale that conducts research in the Gulf of Maine. The group was founded in 1972 by the former president Steve Katona along with students, staff and faculty. The organization has grown and is now part of the Northeast Marine Regional Stranding Network. Allied Whale curates the humpback and fin whale catalogues of the North Atlantic. Allied Whale responds to strandings from Rockport, ME to the eastern Canadian coast.

This past August Allied Whale was notified of a floating--and what seemed to be dead --Leatherback turtle. It is unusual for Allied Whale to respond to turtle strandings. The majority of calls Allied Whale responds to are about seal pups or whales.

On August 22nd, Allied Whale took the college’s research boat to the coast off of Schoodic Point near Winterport, Maine to assess the leatherback turtle. The turtle was deceased and was transported back to the college where a necropsy would be performed once the school year resumed. Allied Whale has a permit to conduct necropsies to determine cause of death as well as to collect data. Work-study students and volunteers take part in operation. A necropsy is an autopsy performed on an animal. If a deceased animal comes in during the winter or at times when there are not enough volunteers or students present to conduct a necropsy the animals are put into a freezer and are necropsied at a later date.

Although the smell might be horrendous, and it can be gory, necropsies are exciting, educational, and engaging. The procedures are completed outside along the main driveway of the college. Observers are encouraged to stop and take pictures, ask questions, and learn about the process they are witnessing.
During the leatherback necropsy there were many professors excited to learn about what the inside of the turtle looked like. In addition, the local elementary school arranged for the sixth grade class to come in small groups and observe the procedure.

This was the first necropsy I was participating in and the fact that it was on a turtle was very exciting. I began as a work-study student for Allied Whale this past fall and this was one of the first necropsies of the season. There were many questions that I and many other people were wondering before the start of the necropsy. Probably the most pressing one was, “How did the turtle die?” The only way to answer this question was through performing the necropsy.

Necropsies vary in their length depending on the size of the animal and how much data needs to be gathered. Taking pictures and documenting information also adds to the amount of time needed to complete the task. In this circumstance, the necropsy took almost a full day.

In the final stretch of the procedure the stomach and the esophagus were opened up, and our prediction for the cause of death became known. Inside the stomach the only content was a sheet of plastic. This moment of “ah-ha” was not positive nor was it happy. The sixth graders observing were seeing first-hand how pollutants such as plastic can be ingested by marine animals.

I imagined the turtle floating along and mistaking the plastic for a piece of seaweed, simply opening it’s mouth thinking it was eating another satisfying meal but in reality it was consuming a material that would become trapped in it’s stomach. This would cause the turtle to have a false sense of fullness, leading to a decrease in it’s intake of nutrition.

Having the experience of taking part in this necropsy and being able to see the sixth graders learning first hand about the damage marine debris can do to an animal reinforced my desire to take my interest in education and marine science to help increase understanding about why we need to keep the oceans free of toxins of all kinds.

The Rozalia Project combines my love of the marine environment and my enthusiasm for education. I am looking forward to the summer aboard The American Promise where together we will teach kids about marine debris and spread knowledge about how we can collaborate to prevent debris from ending up in the ocean and having detrimental effects on the environment and marine ecology like the sheet of plastic had on the unassuming turtle found near Winterport, Maine.


  1. Thanks for the blog -- another reason I'm fighting to ban plastic bags. For the record, though, I think the name of the Schoodic Point town is Winter Harbor, a hard-working and quaint fishing village about 60 miles due east of Winterport. All part of a beautiful Maine coastline!

  2. Laura,
    Thank you for the correction! I was incorrect in my description of where the turtle was found. The turtle was found off of Schoodic point near Winter Harbor, ME, not Winter Point, ME. Thank you again for noticing the error!