Earthwatch Scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Whitman

Elizabeth R. Whitman, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Researcher
What do you enjoy most/what do you find most interesting about your research topic?

Sea turtles, especially green sea turtles, are emblematic and have been the inspiration for decades of art, science, and conservation. Green turtles occupy an important position in the food web, and I want to know why and where they eat what they eat. To do this, I study the way green turtles interact with different food options (seagrass and algae) and how they respond to predators (sharks). Just like humans, many factors go into their decision making, and teasing apart these factors to improve conservation efforts fascinates me.

How does citizen science support your research?

The Bahamas relies on tourism as a large part of their economy and sea turtles are an important draw for ecotourists. Citizen scientists provide us with the personnel power needed to survey and monitor green turtle populations across multiple islands. Citizen scientists contribute to our data set of turtle distributions, growth rates, and health status that informs government and ecosystem management agencies. They also support local nonprofit groups who we partner with to conduct our research and facilitate our stays on the islands. In return, citizen scientists experience a unique opportunity to safely interact with and learn to appreciate endangered sea turtles at a deeper level than what is typically allowed by legal protection regulations. Through their experiences in the field and a series of guest lectures, our citizen scientists become educators of the general public and help spread the message of the ecosystem role of sea turtles and need for conservation long after their time with us.

What is one of your favorite moments in the field?

As researchers, our goal is to maximize our time in the field, and it's easy to overlook the beauty of the natural world around us when we are focused on collecting data. The greatest moments occur when something is so awe inspiring that you can't help but stop and admire your surroundings. When the winds drop to zero in the shallow tidal creeks where we sometimes work, the water appears as a plane of glass through which we can view the underwater world with perfect clarity. Watching turtles silently glide by the boat over a lush seagrass meadow puts everything into perspective. PIs, interns, and volunteers can all forget the bumps and bruises, sunburns, and early morning wake-ups that come along with field work. In those moments, we are reminded of why we do what we do and the natural world that inspires us to continue.

My proudest moment in the field came at the end of a three-month field season. One of my interns that summer had started as a relatively inexperienced snorkeler, but after three months of training and practice, she demonstrated her new abilities by jumping in to fix a camera that we had deployed on a reef for part of a shark survey project. This task required her to assess and correct the issue with the camera while maintaining her position in the water column. When she resurfaced triumphant, we gave her the nickname "fish!"

Education
  • Ph.D. Biology, Florida International University, Miami, FL (U.S.)
  • M.S. Environmental Science, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA (U.S.)
  • B.A. Communications, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN (U.S.)
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