Faces of Turtle Conservation: Tabitha Hootman

Tabitha Hootman displays a juvenile Suwannee Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys suwanniensis) catalogued during TSA's North American Freshwater Turtle Research's most recent sample in North Florida.

Who: Tabitha Hootman

What: North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, North Florida Program Leader

Where: Jacksonville, Florida

Tabitha, you were recently named as the North Florida Program Leader for the TSA's North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group. Could you please tell us more about what this group does and your goals as Program Leader going forward?

TSA's North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group conducts long-term population demographic studies on turtle species across North America. Our group's goals are to generate population estimates, percent survivability, sex ratios, density, biomass, growth, and movement data.

As a program leader, I hope to expand our sample sites throughout North Florida. Florida has such an amazing, rich diversity of turtles, some of which can only be found in limited areas, and many of which have a significant need of more research and understanding.

I also hope to increase community engagement in our mission. I want to build community education and participation in the conservation of turtles. Ideally, I would also like to start community outreach to our next generation of scientists.

How did you get interested in turtles and how did this interest segue into a volunteer role with TSA?

My interest originated when I was just a little girl. As a child I would try to find every turtle in the pastures, woods and ponds. As I was entering my senior year in college, I had the opportunity to work on a Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) nesting study. During this time, I was introduced to my first freshwater turtle sample at Wekiwa Springs State Park. It was the most amazing place I had ever seen and most certainly the most amazing thing I had ever done. It was love at first sight- I was hooked.

Tabitha and company snorkel a North Florida freshwater spring in December 2021. Photo: Melinda Eades

Tell us about your most memorable experience performing research in the freshwater springs of Florida?

Haha! This is a hard one. I have had so many incredible experiences throughout the years- some beautiful, some embarrassing, some funny. But even in my 18 years of sampling, there is a magic that doesn't leave you. It's that beauty and peace that surrounds you and envelops you when you are in the springs doing what you love most in the world. The environment itself takes your breath away. Then, when you jump in the water and submerge yourself in a different world, it is like being in a magical utopia. Even paddling on top of the water, you are fully immersed in that same utopia. Your team becomes an extension of yourself, working together to catch these magical beasts. Afterward, we start processing them, taking their measurements, weights, tagging them....and it is never less than astounding to see how resilient turtles really are. We've seen missing limbs, boat strikes, car strikes, bullet holes, hooks, and even alligator teeth broken off into the carapace and yet, they are still spirited and thriving. Every experience out there incredibly special. And, I would be amiss here if I didn't mention that our team is a HUGE part of this magic. Never have I worked with such a hardworking, passionate, dependable group of people that work together as a family to be one of the most successful teams in turtle conservation.

That being said, I would have to say my first experience at Wekiwa Springs State Park is probably my most memorable. It was the first time I experienced any of this and it made a huge impact on me. It truly was love at first sight. That was the moment I knew I had found my "turtle family," I discovered my passion and knew this is where I wanted to be and what I loved to do.

You recently completed a Master'  s Degree in Marine Science from Jacksonville University, studying the movements of Peninsula (Pseudemys floridana pensinsularis) and Florida Redbelly (Pseudemys nelsoni) cooters. What was your most intriguing finding of this study and are you still involved with tracking these turtles as a post-graduate?

There were so many intriguing aspects to this study. I would have to say the most profound is how much they do (or can) travel and how individually based that seems to be. We saw movementS, yes, capital S (more than one), that reached up to approximately 24 times what their previous range was depicted as.  As far as my continued involvement, yes and no. Unfortunately, COVID did not allow us to continue tracking like we had previously. When I did get the chance to travel down, I would take my equipment to check in on everyone and see where they were. At this point, we will be starting to remove the telemetry devices. Next, I plan on publishing a methods paper and sharing the information pertaining to four years of wearing the telemetry devices.

Tabitha and Paul Dunn display a female Carolina Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin centrata) on a nesting beach of northeast Florida. Photo: Tabitha Hootman

Tell us about your newest initiative for North Florida involving Carolina Diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin centrata)?

This is exciting news! For me, it is a project that has come full circle. This is the same project I started on in 2004 as an undergraduate, working with TSA-NAFTRG Director Eric Munscher. We will be working with the State Park Service to continue nesting monitoring on one of the most successful Carolina Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin centrata) nesting beaches in North Florida. I have continued to work on this project after college through other organizations, but I am over the moon that it has come full circle back to us.

This project will utilize a combination of citizen scientists and college/university students and classes to bolster the conservation efforts for this species. They will walk the beach every day looking for crawls and signs of nesting. When a nest is identified, and confirmed, the nest will be monitored to track its fate. It might not sound like much, but this is hard work, and this site as well as our team has already been instrumental in pushing for greater conservation of this species. I can't wait to see how much more we can accomplish!

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get involved in turtle conservation, whether as a professional or a volunteer?

Jump in, the water's fine.

No matter what level you want to participate, there is a need for you. Many times, I hear others say how they would love to do turtle conservation, but they aren't a scientist. You don't necessarily have to be.  If you have the love, the passion, the drive, you are already halfway there. Age doesn't matter either.  We have volunteers that have started in junior high school and grown with us, retired individuals who have just always wanted to participate in conservation work but didn't have a chance early on, and everything in between. We have some of the top scientists/experts in the field on our team, and we have people every walk of life and profession. So jump right in, climb on board, and help turtles in their fight for survival.