While not exactly lions, tigers, and bears, the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve is hosting a number of different scientists and groups researching animals in this slice of paradise.

 

 

While not exactly lions, tigers, and bears, the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve is hosting a number of different scientists and groups researching animals in this slice of paradise.

With everything from box turtles to black bears, scientists are drawn to the Buffer and nearby St. Joseph Peninsula State Park to study this region's ecological diversity.

The Buffer is hosting researchers from the Audubon Florida, Florida State University, the American Turtle Preserve, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the University of Georgia.

Anne Mauro, of Florida Audubon, is using the Buffer as a staging area as she studies shorebirds on St. Joseph Peninsula and St. George Island.

“I hope to learn about the survivability of the plovers, and how predation impacts not only the egg and hatching, but also the adults,” Mauro said.

In addition to Snowy plovers, Mauro is also studying the Least Tern, Wilson’s plover, and the American oystercatcher.

This year Mauro’s group recorded their earliest Snowy plover nest on Valentines Day.

“They’ve never nested that early before and it’s still going on, we’re still getting a lot of re-nests,” Mauro said.

While nesting numbers have been good for Mauro, her team has also seen record breaking high predation for all of her studied species except for the American oystercatcher.

“It’s just been a constant heavy coyote predation from the start,” Mauro said. “Based off of the tracks in the shorebird habitat, you get at least four coyotes just around one shorebird nest at times.”

Mauro’s team may have also taken the first photographic evidence of a ghost crab killing an adult plover on a nest.

While Mauro said that the practice was known, no direct evidence has ever been captured.

Natalie Montero, a graduate student from FSU, is leading a group of undergraduate students in a study of local sea turtles during nesting season.

Montero has also seen the impact of coyotes on the sea turtle nests during sea studies on the peninsula.

For her graduate research, Montero is using temperature loggers that she places into nests to record information about the conditions within the nest, in order to get a grasp on how those conditions impact turtle hatchling development.

“Is it humidity, or rain, or air temperature that is most important to how these turtles develop,” Montero asked.

Montero said that if a correlation can be found, that the state parks could help the turtle population by preparing for the future.

But as with Mauro’s research, coyotes are interfering by digging up turtle nests that contain Montero’s temperature loggers. Once the loggers are dug up, Montero losses days of data.

Sea turtles aren’t the only shelled animals being studied in Gulf County.

Jessica Meck, from the American Turtle Observatory, is studying the Gulf Coast Box Turtle.

In her second summer at the buffer, Meck has moved from studying the box turtle in the Apalachicola NWR to the land at the Buffer Preserve.

“Usually when I first say box turtles people assume that they are sea turtles,” Meck said. “So it’s a little tough, but I also get to surprise people and educate people.”

According to Meck, the Gulf Coast Box Turtle is one of six subspecies of box turtle and the largest. Only found from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, the Gulf Coast Box Turtle has the smallest range and is believed to be descended from an extinct box turtle subspecies that lived during the Pleistocene era.

All of the researchers interviewed praised the Buffer as being an optimal place to stay and study.

The hospitality provided by the Buffer is for ongoing research that will directly impact either the adjacent St. Joseph Bay Aquatic Preserve or the Buffer itself.

While researchers gain a place to stay and work, the preserves gain valuable information.

“That is how we are able to find out about population surveys that we as a very small staff would not be able to feasibly do at all,” said Dylan Shoemaker, the preserve manager.

According to Shoemaker, all the data collected is shared with the buffer staff, which can then use that data to properly plan management strategies for the preserves.

As an added benefit, Shoemaker said that visitors often get to talk to active researchers to get an in-depth look at ongoing work at the Buffer.

Black Bear surveys are also being conducted at the Buffer by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as a study of sturgeon being conducted by University of Georgia students.