Dr. Janaki R.R. Alavalapati, Dean
School of Forestry & Wildlife Sciences
3301 Forestry and Wildlife Building
602 Duncan Drive
Auburn, Alabama 36849-3418
Nicole Conner, M.S., “Adapting New Technologies for Evaluating the Ecology and Distribution of the Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) in Alabama”
Join the seminar via Zoom at: https://auburn.zoom.us/j/4334742503
The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), an emydid turtle that plays an important ecological role in salt marsh ecosystems, has declined over the last century and is listed as a Priority One Species (highest conservation concern) in Alabama. Traditional surveying techniques have been employed to monitor diamondback terrapins on the coast of Alabama throughout the last decade; yet these techniques can be time-consuming, labor-intensive, and disruptive to terrapins and their habitats. This study evaluated the potential for UAS technology and eDNA methodologies to effectively monitor diamondback terrapin presence, abundance, and/or distribution in salt marsh habitats. UAS-based surveys were conducted in 2017 and 2020 and the observational results indicated that UASs can provide an efficient and cost-effective means of evaluating both the spatial and seasonal abundance of terrapins in the tidal channels of salt marsh habitats. To develop an environmental DNA (eDNA) assay for diamondback terrapins, primer-pairs were designed to target a sequence of terrapin mtDNA. Then, a protocol was developed for the efficient collection of water samples and isolation of eDNA. The assay was first tested in the laboratory and was then tested with water samples collected from salt marsh habitats in Alabama. Additionally, a control eDNA assay for striped mullet (Mugil cephalus), an abundant species in Alabama salt marshes, was developed. Striped mullet eDNA was present in most environmental samples, but detection ability appears to vary seasonally. The diamondback terrapin eDNA assay can accurately detect terrapin eDNA from the water of captive terrapins in the laboratory, but the present methodology does not appear sufficient for the detection of the levels of terrapin eDNA in the habitats examined. With improvements to primer specificity and assay sensitivity, this eDNA methodology may be able to detect diamondback terrapins in their natural habitat. The results of this study suggest that UAS and eDNA technologies both present promising means for the detection of diamondback terrapins in salt marsh ecosystems. These studies provide a foundation for the potential use of these technologies in diamondback terrapin conservation or research, which could significantly complement and enhance ongoing diamondback terrapin research throughout its range.
Nicole Conner, M.S., is a researcher and teaching assistant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her passion for marine conservation and management led her to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Marine Science and Biology at the University of Alabama. Before beginning graduate school, she completed an REU internship through the Duke University Marine Lab and an internship at the Georgia Aquarium. In the summer, Nicole received her Master’s of Biology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham for her research evaluating the use of drones and environmental DNA for monitoring the diamondback terrapin in Alabama, a species of high conservation concern. Her hope is that her research can help inform future studies focused on monitoring a variety of threatened and endangered species with sparse and/or poorly understood distributions.