Parasite Populations

Parasite Populations

Graduate Student Takes Novel Approach to Study Aquatic Turtles

Florida is home to a unique turtle that lives in the brackish waters of mangrove swamps and tidal rivers — the diamondback terrapin. It’s the only turtle in the world that exists exclusively in this type of estuary habitat, and it’s notoriously difficult to study, according to Garrett Maggio, a graduate student at FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Named for the concentric diamond-like pattern along its back, the aquatic turtle reaches lengths up to nine inches. They face a variety of threats, from drowning in crab traps to habitat loss as well as capture for the pet trade. Because of this, terrapins are listed as an Appendix II species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means that unless trade is closely controlled the species may become threatened with extinction.

Maggio studies terrapins using a novel technique. He’s investigating populations of a parasite that first infects a snail but passes to the turtles when the turtle consumes the snails. “Although the parasite can be easily collected within snails, it may have the capability to give researchers information on terrapin dispersal rates,” Maggio said.

For his work, Maggio is the recent recipient of the 2022 Charles E. Roberts Environmental Science Research Award and support from the 2022-23 National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “I feel incredibly fortunate to be conducting a project with potential conservation importance in the opinion of an organization that protects some of the most important, charismatic habitats both in Florida and across the country,” Maggio said, regarding the NPCA support.

So far, Maggio said he’s found a new population of the parasite in Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine. The NPCA funds will help him complete genetic analyses.

Maggio grew up in Massachusetts and developed an interest in nature and animals from a young age. “Being close to the ocean for most of my childhood helped me feel particularly connected to marine and coastal ecosystems, especially as I began to explore career paths,” he said. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wheaton College in Massachusetts before attending FAU Harbor Branch for his master’s degree.

“Parasites themselves are seldom considered for conservation statuses, even when their host species, such as terrapins, are listed by states, countries, or even internationally,” Maggio said. “Parasites are vital to maintain natural levels of ecological connectivity and incorporating them into ecological research is a step towards protecting them alongside their symbionts.”

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