MSc Graduate In Focus: Catherine Hart

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Catherine Hart, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2009) and now scientific director for the Red Tortguera (Sea Turtle Network) in Mexico!

Hi Catherine! First off, why don’t you tell us what you are up to now and how you got there?

I moved to Mexico when I was 19 after having been a volunteer on a sea turtle conservation project in Nayarit state and then undertaking an undergraduate degree there. It had always been my intention to go straight back after the master’s course. On arriving back, I began to run the field conservation work for a small NGO and then when it was low sea turtle season taught secondary school science and did a little gardening/child minding on the side. In 2010 I decided that a PhD would be beneficial and allow me to continue my sea turtle conservation and research activities. The PhD was with the Universidad de Guadalajara in Puerto Vallarta and was supported through a scholarship from the Mexican government. During that period, I increased the number of nesting beach conservation projects that I was managing from one to seven and co-founded an NGO “Red Tortuguera” (sea turtle network). After the PhD I was accepted into the Mexican Researchers System (Sistema Nacional de Investigadores) which allows me to continue my research while conducting sea turtle conservation activities.

What did you enjoy most about studying your MSc with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

I loved being by the sea. I am from Northampton so that’s about as far from the ocean as you can get in the UK. I loved how dynamic the UK tides are and I even loved the seagulls (which are not that popular).

Everyone on the course were amazing and had all done different conservation and research activities either during their undergraduate degrees or as volunteers. It was a great opportunity to learn about different places and conservation issues. The researchers at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation are world class and very approachable. I always felt that I could ask questions and didn’t have to be embarrassed for having no idea about some things that others knew from their undergraduate degrees in the UK.

What skills and experiences from the MSc have been most useful in your career?

I would say everything I learnt at Exeter has been useful. Firstly, having studied at a university known for its research on sea turtles has opened many doors not to mention that my masters project was on Mexican sea turtles and I was put in contact with some of the top researchers worldwide for East Pacific green sea turtles who I may not have gotten to know so early in my career if it hadn’t been for the introductions made by the Exeter researchers. This is something I am very grateful for as not only has it been great for my research and conservation activities but also for the friendships I have made. On a more academic note the courses on statistics and mapping software have come in very useful! Perhaps the most important thing that I learnt at Exeter is to have the confidence in myself and the experience that I had gained from years of fieldwork in Mexico.

Finally, why did you choose your career path and do you have any advice for those looking to pursue something similar?

It’s great to be able to help study and protect sea turtles and other local wildlife where I live. I like to think that I am making a difference. I have been in the same place long enough to see some of the results of our conservation activities and that is very rewarding.

Never turn down an opportunity to tag along on research trips, learn a second language and perhaps take a course in marketing.

Any advice for anyone thinking of applying to the University of Exeter?

Just do it.

Thanks Catherine!!

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

Shark Awareness Day: Plastic pollution – problematic for sharks and rays.

For Shark Awareness Day 2019 we have been chatting to a few of our elasmobranch (that’s sharks, skates and rays) researchers here the the University of Exeter! In this blog we talk to Kristian Parton one of our Masters by Research students based at our Penryn Campus. He has recently published his first research paper giving a global overview of shark and ray entanglement. Below he tells us about his research and what he has found.

Words by Kristian Parton, Masters by Research Student at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus

Numerous shark populations around the world are under-threat from a variety human impacts, the most notable of these being overexploitation and bycatch. Plastic pollution and marine debris is also an ever-growing threat to species inhabiting the marine environment, having direct impacts on fish, sea turtles and marine mammals. There is little existing scientific knowledge on the impacts of marine debris on shark and ray species. Over the last year, I led a team of researchers from the University of Exeter seeking to investigate the impacts of anthropogenic (human-made) marine debris on elasmobranch populations across the globe. Our literature review was published this week in Endangered Species Research, in which we used novel data collection from social media site “Twitter”, as well as pre-existing data in the scientific literature. We discovered that the threat of marine debris to sharks and rays is likely underreported and is without doubt of clear animal welfare concern, although it is unlikely to have wide-ranging detrimental population level effects.

We managed to identify that “ghost fishing gear” was the category of marine debris responsible for entangling the majority of elasmobranchs. Ghost fishing gear is fishing equipment that has been discarded or lost at sea, and is distributed by ocean currents and winds. Ghost gear indiscriminately catches and kills a host of marine life, including sharks and rays.  We also discovered the majority of entangled individuals were found in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, although recommend that more research should also be conducted in the Indian ocean – a known hotspot for elasmobranch biodiversity. In the scientific literature the most common entangled species were lesser spotted dogfish and spiny dogfish, two species regularly found off the coast of Cornwall. We highlight that sharks and rays who have specific habitat niches (e.g. those that inhabit the seafloor or species that occupy open ocean habitats), as well as those who display migratory movements may be at higher risk of entanglement in marine debris.

This Short-fin Mako Shark has been entangled in fishing rope which has caused scoliosis (deformation) of its spine. Image by Daniel Cartamil

By using a novel method of data collection via social media site “Twitter”, we were able to identify several different species of shark and ray that were a victim of entanglement, but weren’t found as entangled in the scientific literature. This included whale sharks, basking sharks and oceanic white-tip sharks. Twitter also highlighted additional entanglements hotspots that again weren’t displayed in the scientific literature.

Although not one of the major threats to sharks and rays, entanglement in marine debris still presents a risk to elasmobranchs, particularly from an animal welfare perspective. With further research on the topic, it could be revealed that this is occurring at far higher levels than we have reported. Social media has now become integrated into today’s society, so using it in a positive way to help reveal additional entanglement reports is a real bonus. With millions of users, the global reach of social media is unprecedented and scientists could now start to tap into the virtual databases that exist on the web.

From this research, we have set up an online entanglement report form in collaboration with the Shark Trust. This will allow citizen scientists across the globe to submit their shark and ray entanglement sightings, and will significantly help scientist further quantify this risk to ever declining elasmobranch populations.

Follow Kris on Twitter.

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Scientists at Sea Podcast – The Stingray Episode: with Ethan Wrigglesworth and Molly Meadows

In this episode, we get to know our regular presenters a little better. Ethan and Molly talk to Ben, the producer, about the work they have been doing as Masters by Research students for the past two years. Under the supervision of Dr. Lucy Hawkes, Molly and Ethan have been working closely with Dr. Owen O’Shea at the Cape Eleuthera Insitute (CEI) in the Bahamas, to study the stingrays in the local waters.

 

 

Molly and Ethan worked with two data deficient species of stingray; the Southern Stingray, and the Caribbean Whiptail Ray  The main focus of the research was to investigate the rays’ diets. This involved two methods; stable isotopes analysis and stomach content analysis (you can learn more about them in the podcast).

 

Ray team just after having caught a southern stingray along a sandbar. (Ethan first on left, Molly, second from right).

 

Why does this matter?

Well, as Molly and Ethan put it:

Molly holding the tail of a Caribbean whiptail ray presenting the large venomous barb.

 

 

 

“To understand about the diet is actually to understand general ecology… within an ecosystem, what a predator feeds upon… has a great impact on the population sizes of the prey, and there’s a huge amount of energy moving up in that food chain”

 

 

 

 

 

 

How might such research be applied? Well, in the Bahamas there is no legislation for the protection of mangroves.

 

“In the Bahamas, there’s lots of these mangrove creeks, and plenty of fish use them as nursery habitats because they offer a lot of shelter within the roots… stingrays occupy these systems as well… they feed on worms, crabs and things within the sea floor, so they use the mangroves a lot to find (their) food.”

 

You can find out more about why mangroves are so important here.

 

“Beaches are very popular in terms of tourist economy, so (mangroves) get destroyed quite a lot”

 

While the stingrays rely on the mangroves for food, it seems they also offer plenty to the mangroves themselves. To find out exactly what they offer, take a listen to the episode.

 

A free diver going face to face with a large Caribbean Whiptail Ray

 

 

 

You can also find out about some skills you might not know existed, like stingray herding!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highschool/Island school student Jake holding a southern stingray during sampling procedures

 

Getting Started with Marine Science

Molly and Ethan initially honed their marine biology skills and interests as undergraduates here at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus, studying Zoology and Conservation Biology and Ecology respectively. In their final year they undertook a field course to Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, this sewed the seeds of their Masters by Research. Click the links to find out more.

 

 

Here is a bonus link mentioned during the episode, enjoy! Household items reviewed for science

 

Videos courtesy of CEIBahamas

Hosted by Ethan Wrigglesworth and Molly Meadows

Episode and show notes produced by Ben Toulson

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!