The Island of St. Kitts

RUSVM Student to Present Sea Turtle Research in Peru

Jan 20, 2016

Hill, a 3rd semester Integrated DVM/Masters by Research student, has focused her studies on understanding why some sea turtle hatchlings thrive in St. Kitts and others perish. She will be traveling to Lima Peru in March to present a poster of preliminary findings at the 36th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation. She is working with advisors Drs. Kimberly Stewart, Assistant Professor of Special Species, and Michelle Dennis, Associate Professor of Anatomic Pathology, at RUSVM to understand what may be contributing to the low hatch success rate of leatherback sea turtles in St. Kitts.

Hill has gathered her research in part, by participating in “night patrols” where she and her fellow team of volunteers comb the beach to survey nesting leatherbacks and hatchlings. Back at the lab, Hill and the team work to further understand the pathology plaguing the sea turtle population. Although hatch success rate is low globally at about 50 percent, St. Kitts has a significantly lower rate, hovering around 5 to 10 percent said Hill. She will present preliminary findings at the symposium, one of which includes a high level of pneumonia as a potential cause for the low rate.

“Reducing embryonal mortality is essential for recovery of vulnerable leatherback populations, but we do not understand the basis for the notoriously high rate of embryonal death observed for the species. This research is a first step to assess the disease status of leatherback embryos and hatchlings which fail to emerge from the nest,” said Dr. Dennis.

Hill was drawn to attend RUSVM due in part to research collaborations with the SKSTMN, a community based nonprofit organization that monitors nesting sea turtle populations and advocates for the strengthening of sea turtle protection laws. Founded in 2003, the SKSTMN operates a sea turtle monitoring and protection program in conjunction with the St. Kitts Department of Marine Resources as well as regional and international collaborators. The organization has won several awards including Nominee for the 2011 St. Kitts Tourism Authority Environmental Excellence Award, the 2010 St. Kitts National Youth Parliament Appreciation Award and Winner of the 2009 St. Kitts Tourism Authority Most Eco Friendly Business Award.

As an Integrated DVM/Masters by Research student, Hill is able to develop her research experience and interests while earning her DVM. Working with guidance from RUSVM’s faculty, her work in the program will contribute to her master’s thesis, and ultimately a published paper.

“It has all fallen into place for me here, which is awesome. When I finish my program, I want to continue sea turtle research, so everything has really worked out for me to be here in the Caribbean,” said Hill.

Hill’s interest in sea turtles developed as an undergraduate at University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) where she worked as a rehabilitation intern and continued as a volunteer research assistant in Costa Rica.  It was a passion for turtles that the professors at UNCW demonstrated that solidified her research interests, and pushed her to seek out further training at RUSVM. Hill said she would like to continue her work with turtles after she graduates, and admits that returning to RUSVM for a PhD may even be in the cards one day.

“Sea turtles are my passion, I love to talk about them to anyone and everyone who will listen. The reality is, their future depends on our abilities to educate our community.” 

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