URI student helps rare turtle rebound from declining population

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URI senior Jordan Powell holds a rare diamondback terrapin near the Potowomut River in East Greenwich. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Powell.)

KINGSTON, R.I. – August 28, 2017 – Jordan Powell was recruited to play baseball at the University of Rhode Island, and while he hopes to continue playing long after he graduates next spring, a summer internship he just completed has revealed a dormant curiosity for, of all things, turtles.

The Houston native spent the summer as a Science and Engineering Fellow working with Professor Laura Meyerson to study and monitor a declining population of a rare turtle in East Greenwich.

“I’ve always been interested in science, and I especially like environmental science, so when one of my favorite professors asked me to help with her diamondback terrapin project, I jumped at it,” said Powell, a senior majoring in environmental science and management.

Diamondback terrapins are on the state list of rare species, and their population along the Potowomut River has been declining because few hatchlings have survived in recent years.

“They haven’t been reproducing much at this site in a couple of years,” Powell said, “so my job was to figure out why they aren’t producing many hatchlings.”

Every day during the summer, Powell and fellow students Tim Alfrey, Marina Capraro and Joe Johnson conducted soil surveys, tidal elevation surveys, vegetation surveys, and population surveys. They also took notes on potential predators in the area and observed the human population to see how significantly they disturb the reptiles.

“The turtles are easily spooked, so we’d sneak around to see if we could see any turtles nesting,” Powell explained. “Then when the turtle leaves, we’d put a marker by it and place a cage around it so nothing could get at the eggs.”

He even helped design a new cage that would do a better job of keeping potential predators from digging beneath it to access the turtle eggs, while also prohibiting long-beaked birds from grabbing the baby turtles after they emerge from the sand.

“It was a great thing to see it all come together,” he said. “So far, nothing has breached the cage.”

Most of the turtles are expected to hatch in the next couple weeks, so as the new school year begins, Powell will make periodic visits to the site to keep an eye on them. Faculty at the nearby Rocky Hill School will also monitor the turtle hatchlings and report their findings to the URI researchers.

Powell said that his favorite part of the project was the opportunity to work hands-on with the rare turtles.

“But I also really liked designing the cage to help protect them. And, surprisingly, I liked the labor of putting it all together, too,” he said. “When you see it all come together and see it work, that’s pretty cool.”

Powell’s research was funded through a Science and Engineering Fellowship from the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences. The program aims to foster the development of research skills in undergraduate students from under-represented cultural backgrounds by providing them with hands-on experiences working with research faculty or staff. The fellowship helps students become more prepared to enter the job market with the professional skills and training needed to succeed.

As he begins his final year of college, the centerfielder is optimistic about the URI baseball team’s chances for post-season play, and he’s keeping his fingers crossed that he gets drafted to play professionally. But if that’s not in the cards, he plans to enroll in graduate school and eventually get a job as an environmental consultant or a science teacher.

And if those plans don’t pan out either, he can always continue his turtle research.