UCF's Newest Sea Turtle Expert Studies "The Lost Years"

UCF’s Newest Sea Turtle Expert Studies “The Lost Years”

Katherine Mansfield, Kate to her friends, has been studying turtles for 20 years, working her way through the sea turtle life cycle and now trying to discover what these creatures do during their “lost years.”

That’s the catchphrase marine biologists have given to the period between when sea turtles hatch on local beaches and head out to sea and when they return years later to near-shore habitats, like the Chesapeake Bay or Indian River Lagoon, as larger juveniles.

“We’ve learned quite a bit about what sea turtles do when they nest,” Mansfield said. “In fact, a lot of the groundbreaking work happened right here in Central Florida thanks to (retired UCF biologist) Dr. Llewellyn Ehrhart.  But what happens when hatchlings head into the ocean, and the years they spend offshore before returning to coastal waters—what are these turtles doing? How are they behaving? How to they interact with their environment? That remains a mystery that I very much want to crack.”

Mansfield joined the UCF team this past summer, attracted to UCF’s Marine Turtle Research Group in the biology department, because of its extensive work with sea turtles, its longtime partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, and its strong legacy of community and alumni support.

UCF has a long history of studying loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles, which are all protected by the Endangered Species Act. Ehrhart, who joined UCF in the 1970s, was largely responsible for getting Congress to create the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard County in 1991 thanks to the data the Marine Turtle Research Group began collecting years before. The refuge provides nesting habitats for approximately one-fourth of all sea turtles nesting in the United States. Green sea turtles, loggerheads and leatherbacks lay eggs along the 20-mile shoreline of the refuge each year during nesting season– June through October. The refuge is also home to several other threatened and endangered species. Ehrhart still conducts fieldwork despite officially retiring from the university in 2004.

“Doc (Ehrhart) is amazing,” Mansfield said. “The work he’s done and the research foundation he created is one of the primary reasons I wanted to work at UCF. There’s a bright future here for sea turtle research and for conserving them for future generations to see.”

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Llewellyn Ehrhart and Katherine Mansfield working together on the Indian River Lagoon.

Mansfield is a rising star among sea turtle scientists.  She started her career as a seasonal researcher on nesting beaches throughout Florida, Georgia and the Caribbean, working with adult nesting turtles and their hatchlings. Later, she did her doctoral research on large, coastal juveniles found in Chesapeake Bay, an important juvenile-developmental habitat. Most recently, she has worked with the sea turtle “lost years”.

Over the past five years, she and her collaborators developed and tested satellite tagging methods for young, fast-growing yearling sea turtles using small-scale solar-powered tracking devices. This work resulted in the very first satellite tracks of any oceanic stage, or “lost year” sea turtle. She is applying these methods to wild-caught turtles, tracking the movements and behavior of oceanic-stage loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, green and hawksbill turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, northwestern Atlantic, along the U.S. Atlantic coast, and in the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil. She also works with technology-industry groups to design and develop small solar-powered tracking technologies for small marine organisms.

Mansfield helped develop an oceanic-stage sea turtle tracking program in the southern Atlantic Ocean in collaboration with TAMAR , Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation in Salvador, Brazil.

In November she heads to Brazil for field research with this organization during the Thanksgiving break.

Mansfield has a Ph.D. from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a master’s from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. She previously worked at Florida International University, through the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS) in association with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Services. She was a National Academies NRC postdoctoral associate based at NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and remains an affiliate faculty in Florida Atlantic University’s biology department. With colleagues at each institution she has conducted research that has helped further the understanding of the sea turtle “lost years” and sea turtle life history as a whole.

In the past six years she received several accolades and fellowships, and she and her colleagues have been awarded more than $6 million in research funding, including grants from NOAA and the Florida Sea Turtle License Plate fund. She’s published numerous research articles and one book chapter in the recent Biology of Sea Turtles, Volume III. She was an invited participant in the Loggerhead Expert Working Group and other national and international sea turtle research and management initiatives.

Many look to Mansfield because of her innovative thinking and research techniques, such as using non-toxic manicure acrylic, old wetsuits, and hair-extension glue to attach satellite tags to small turtles, which are very difficult to tag by traditional means because of their size and how fast they grow. She’s featured on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration podcasts and has been interviewed by the BBC, Science, Nature News, and the New Scientist magazine among other media outlets for her research.

For the past few months she’s been getting to know UCF’s Marine Turtle Research Group. The group, made up of students and researchers, houses one of the longest and largest sea turtle datasets in the world. UCF provides the Fish and Wildlife Service with annual data on sea turtle nesting activity and hatchling counts on the Archie Carr refuge, contributing to federal, state and international sea turtle conservation efforts.  She’s conducting field counts as the sea turtle nesting season draws to a close on Oct. 31 and she’s been on several turtle sampling expeditions in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.

Mansfield, an assistant professor at the university, will be adding her oceanic tracking work to the UCF research mix, and plans to create a scientific program that includes a whole-life history approach (from eggs to maturity) to understanding sea turtle ecology and conservation.

“I am incredibly impressed by all the good work this team is doing,” Mansfield said. “I am thrilled to be a part of this group, and to build on the research foundation started by Dr. Ehrhart.”