• Map of Jamaica Bay
  • Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, one piece of Gateway National Recreation Area, sits on the long stretch of Cross Bay Boulevard that connects the Howard Beach and Broad Channel sections of the New York City borough of Queens.

An Urban Oasis

  • Its quiet, buggy pathways sit just a few miles south of the Belt Parkway, the notorious road where traffic often screeches to a halt as it approaches John F. Kennedy International Airport.

    And even though the planes taking off from runway 4L-22R are just a few hundred feet off the ground when they pass over the osprey platform in the South Marsh, there’s an unexpected sense of peace, looking out at the houses of Broad Channel, across the clear blue bay.

    “Jamaica Bay is a great field study site because it is close to Hofstra, accessible by public transport, safe, has all typical problems of wild areas, and is a great example of an urban park with the Manhattan skyline in the background,” according to Dr. Russell Burke, professor of biology at Hofstra. “It’s an excellent training ground for biologists because important questions with broad applicability can be tested here.”

  • Jamaica Bay

Researching the Terrapin Population

  • On the beach, we’re spitting distance from the cargo box that the researchers and volunteers of the Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research Project call home for the months of June and July, when the diamondback terrapin, a species of turtle native to the brackish coastal swamps of the eastern and southern United States, emerges from the bay to lay her eggs in the sandy, scrubby land of this coastal island. The group monitors the female population as they come ashore to nest, and then protects the nests with a type of cage to keep predators such as raccoons away.

    Dr. Burke and his hardy band of students and volunteers have been at this site, researching the terrapin population, for almost twenty years. Dr. Burke has mentored a generation of his undergraduate and graduate students as they engage in independent research projects alongside him.

    “This project is great for undergraduates in part because it lends itself very well to small scale, short term research that can be very productive. A number come from backgrounds where they do absolutely nothing outdoors, know nothing about turtles, ecology or the environment, and in a week or two, they’re up to speed. They’re asking important questions and they’re starting to see important relationships. We have a relatively short working period – six weeks of nesting – and with six weeks of very hard work, they come up with very good results.”

  • Helping the Girls Russell Burke and students
Adriana Eugene

Adriana Eugene, a senior majoring in biology with a concentration in marine biology, learned about the terrapin project when she took BIO 15, Skills & Writing, with Dr. Burke her freshman year. She started investigating the possibility of working with him when she realized that the project would be “the closest thing I could get to a sea turtle in New York.”

Fighting for Sea Creatures

And here, on the trails of the Refuge, around West Pond and the shores of the Bay, she’s learning first hand what field research is like. “I’ve learned that I would like research a lot more than having an office job or walking around in a hospital. I love walking outside, being near the water, working with animals of all different types. I’ve learned patience a lot because you could go two to three days without seeing a turtle. When you’re working with Mother Nature you kind of have to be patient and wait for stuff to happen. There’s no “Okay, I’m going to get a turtle today.” If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. You have to come back tomorrow and wait again.”

Even though she came to Hofstra as a pre-med major, Adriana has always been fascinated by the sea and now dreams of a future protecting coral reefs. “I’ve always just loved being in the water and going to the beach. Where other kids said “I don’t want to go in the sand,” I was sitting there, digging for crabs, poking a washed up jellyfish, and saying “Look mommy, look what I found!” I don’t know exactly where I got my interest but it’s always been there.”

  • Taking Temperatures
  • Adriana and Christine

Adriana’s project, the rare undergraduate project to receive a grant, is funded through the Explorer’s Club, and studies how the material that the cage, or nest protector, is made from affects the temperature of the nest. “Whether terrapins, or turtles in general, come out male or female depends on the temperature at which they are incubated so with global warming and increasing temperatures we’ve been getting more females than males which isn’t good for the population. We want to find the nest protector that’s going to have the smallest effect on that because a couple degrees difference can result in a nest being mixed or all male or all female.”

Nora Spiegel

She often works alongside Christine Kasparov, another senior in biology, whose project “is replicating a study that was done over ten years ago that was investigating cues that raccoons use to find and depredate terrapin nests.” Christine’s work involves creating different cues, such as the flags that mark a nest, human scents, and control nests, to see if raccoons use any of these cues to find and predate terrapin nests.

Do Raccoons Learn?

“It’s always been the assumption that the raccoons don’t learn what those flags are and don’t dig where the flags are,” said Dr. Burke. “So, of course, that’s a good question to ask. Do the raccoons learn or not? Twelve years ago I had a couple of undergraduate students who tested whether the raccoons are more likely to dig where there are flags and what cues they use to find nests. That showed that the raccoons are not using the flags, they use cues that the terrapins leave behind. The next step, two generations of raccoons later, is have the raccoons learned over that period of time? We’re doing that “re” in the “research” part where you redo something you did before because the results might be different and might tell us something really important.”

  • Christine’s ambition is veterinary school. "Just being in this field is very rewarding because I get to have first-hand experience touching and dealing with these terrapins…whether it's by collecting blood or casting scutes. I’ve learned a lot about the differences between all the terrapins, physical abnormalities.”

    While terrapins are new to Christine, her love of animals and ecology is lifelong. “When I was in high school, I was volunteering in shelters. I wanted to get experience with all different kinds of animals as well. So, whether it’s wild life or domestic, I work in a clinic also, so I see kind of all sides of that.”

Even though clinical care of animals is in her future, Christine found research equally compelling. “I like that you kind of have a sense of freedom with it because no one is pushing you or forcing you in one direction or another. It’s kind of a creativity associated what that because you can choose whatever project you want to do basically. You kind of make your own schedule, you actually go out and collect data and are responsible for that.”

Joanne Hernandez

And her summer research project led Christine to another unique undergraduate opportunity: a presentation on her work at a conference at the Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. Her poster presentation, entitled The Telltale of Turtles: Visual and Olfactory Cues Raccoons Use to Find Diamondback Terrapin Nests, was part of NEPARC 2016 (Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation).

View Christine's Poster Presentation

Research for Undergrads