April 28, 2010

UAB expert says Gulf oil spill endangers four-year fight to save turtle population

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The growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico could void years of conservation work to save a species of turtle that calls the Alabama Gulf Coast home, say the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) biologists who are behind the effort.

“Any community of organisms in the path of that spreading oil slick is in danger, and that is especially the case for a species like the Diamondback Terrapin turtle that is teetering on the brink of extinction in Alabama,” says Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., the UAB biologist leading efforts to save the terrapin.

In 2006, Wibbels, UAB biologist Ken Marion, Ph.D., and Department of Biology graduate student Andy Coleman began conservation and recovery efforts to save the Diamondback Terrapin. The team’s work led to the creation of a turtle hatchery and head-start program on the UAB campus as a means to grow the dwindling turtle population that lives in the unique ecosystem of the Cedar Point Marsh adjacent to Dauphin Island.

The UAB team was planning to release a large number of head-started terrapin from the UAB hatchery into Cedar Point Marsh this week, but has temporarily postponed the release until the fate of the oil spill is determined.

The terrapin was driven to the brink of extinction after years of commercial growth encroached on its habitat, coupled with higher death rates driven by commercial fishing operations and predation.

“The terrapin has a rich history in Alabama and nationally. It was considered a delicacy by the country’s upper class at the turn of the 20th century, and Alabama just happened to be home to the nation’s largest terrapin farm, which created wonderful opportunities for state exports and tax collections,” Marion says.

The Diamond Terrapin’s history is well documented in archived articles, but the UAB team’s work to preserve that history may be in jeopardy as thousands of gallons of oil continue to pour into the Gulf waters.

“At this point, it is too difficult to predict the exact outcome of the spill,” Wibbels says. “But pending the stoppage of the oil slick before it reaches the coastline, the potential outcomes are all certainly negative as they relate to the future health of the Cedar Point Marsh, the terrapin population and other species.”

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