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IPFW professor making a difference as he helps lead efforts to save leatherback sea turtles

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To help promote sea turtle research and conservation, Professor Frank Paladino of IPFW helped found the Leatherback Trust, www.leatherback.org.

The challenge

Leatherback sea turtles' life cycle makes it difficult for the species to rebuild its population.

Females must reach age 15 or more to begin reproducing successfully, said professor Frank Paladino, chairman of IPFW's Department of Biological Sciences. However, only about one in 1,000 hatchlings survives to adulthood.

Those odds and laying eggs only every three to four years mean a female must live to about age 27 just to replace herself, Paladino said. She has to live to age 50 or more to replace her mate and then begin adding to the leatherback population.

Leatherbacks' decline could have consequences well beyond their species.

The turtles feed on jellyfish, with adults consuming about 200 pounds a day, Paladino said. As the turtles' numbers have declined in the Pacific, scientists have seen a dramatic increase in jellyfish.

Jellyfish feed on the young fish of species that humans catch for food, Paladino said. The combination of more jellyfish and humans' overfishing could cause fish populations to crash in the Pacific.

“I think the human race is in for a really bumpy ride for the next 200 years, unless things change,” he said.

Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 12:01 am

He routinely receives death threats involving his research work in Costa Rica, where he led efforts to create a national maritime park.

He coordinates or assists with numerous scientific studies around the world, including advising Chinese scientists on the reintroduction of captive-bred panda bears into the wild. He also helps lead efforts worldwide to save the leatherback sea turtle from extinction.

All of the activity radiates from professor Frank Paladino's crowded office on the third floor of the Science Building at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Paladino, 61, has taught at IPFW since 1981 and now serves as chairman of the university's Department of Biological Sciences. Though a scientist of world renown, he stays here because it is a place where he believes he still can make a difference — both in the research field and in developing future generations of scientists.

His style is one of sharing: “I worked hard and made it this far, and I want to pull up as many people as I can,” said Stephen Morreale, who has worked with Paladino for 25 years on leatherback sea turtle and other research projects around the globe.

Morreale spoke by telephone from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he is a senior research associate and adjunct associate professor with the university's Department of Natural Resources.

Working with colleagues such as Morreale, Paladino said he has helped train more than 50 students who are now professors at universities in America and abroad. About a dozen other students have earned their doctorate degree.

“They go out and do good things,” Morreale said. “He has a huge footprint.”

About two dozen IPFW students also have earned master's degrees while assisting Paladino with his research, and a few students from Purdue University in West Lafayette have earned doctorates.

Paladino also has encouraged several IPFW biology department faculty to join him in research projects or to conduct separate research in Costa Rica, said Bruce Kingsbury, a fellow biology professor at IPFW and director of the university's Environmental Resources Center.

“I found out about my job here from him while on a beach in Costa Rica,” added Kingsbury, who then was doing post-doctorate work with Paladino's mentor, professor James R. Spotila of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Paladino also is involved in sea turtle research in South Africa, Greece and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Along with his passion and commitment, Paladino has a unique ability for working with people and getting things done, Morreale said.

“He can really galvanize efforts and people,” he said. “He can do that in other countries and in other languages.”

The Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas in Costa Rica stands as a great example, Morreale said.

Paladino, who began working in Costa Rica in 1988, led efforts to create the national maritime park on the Central American nation's west coast. Its boundaries include beaches where 30 to 40 female leatherbacks now crawl out of the ocean at night each year to dig nests in the sand and lay their eggs.

Beaches in Las Baulas and elsewhere along the west coast of Costa Rica provide nesting habitat for a majority of leatherback sea turtles in the eastern Pacific Ocean, Paladino said. His research team also operates a hatchery there to raise baby leatherbacks for release into the ocean.

He faces a near-constant battle to preserve the park, however, as developers seeking new beachfront property pressure the Costa Rican government to open the land to their use.

“We have to hire a lot of lawyers, and good ones,” Paladino said.

“I am really, really impressed with how he has persevered in Costa Rica,” Morreale said. “It can be disheartening to have to fight the same battles year after year after year.”

They often joke about the challenges and frustrations they face, Morreale said, but they keep moving forward.

For Paladino, one reason to keep pushing on is the leatherback, which he said could face extinction, especially in the Pacific Ocean.

The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks have survived in about the same form for 60 million years, he said. About the size of your hand when they hatch, the turtles grow to more 1,000 pounds and can live for 60 to 70 years in the wild.

Their population has plummeted over the last few decades in the Pacific Ocean, however, from about 100,000 females in 1980 to about 3,000 females today, Paladino said. Scientists estimate there are about an equal number of males.

Poachers caused an initial decline by collecting turtle eggs from nests and then selling them, Paladino said. In Costa Rica, he turned poachers into guides that help people see the turtles, supporting the country's substantial eco-tourism industry.

Today, leatherbacks face greater threats from developers destroying nesting beaches and from miles and miles of commercial long-line fishing hooks dangling in the ocean.

Sea turtles swimming through waters containing long lines can drown if they get tangled in the lines or are hooked, Paladino said.

The population of leatherbacks in the Atlantic Ocean has declined more slowly because they have a more plentiful food supply, and they face less danger from long-line fishing and trawl nets, Paladino said.

Paladino and several colleagues — including John H. Roe, who did master's degree and post-doctorate work at IPFW with Paladino and Kingsbury — studied a possible way to reduce leatherbacks deaths by long-line fishing. Their findings were published recently in the science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The researchers compared information on long-line operators' accidental catches of leatherbacks and other sea creatures with scientists' data tracking the paths of 135 leatherbacks at sea.

In certain regions of the Pacific, they found leatherbacks' movement to feeding or nesting areas overlapped with areas of heavy long-line fishing, Paladino said. The scientists suggest studying those “hotspot” regions more closely to determine how leatherbacks can be protected without eliminating long-line fishing.

He, like the other scientists involved, hopes their work can make a difference.