HARWICH ─ Dissections are a typical part of most high school biology classes, but thanks to a special partnership between Monomoy Regional High School and the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, students in Adriana Picariello's Marine Science class recently had the unique opportunity to necropsy a quartet of Kemp's ridley sea turtles.
“The Audubon rescues the stranded turtles and sends them off to rehabilitation,” said Picariello. “They end up with ones that didn't make it, and that's when they bring them into the classrooms to go through the dissections with the kids.”
Several weeks ago, scientists from the sanctuary brought four deceased turtles to the classroom for the necropsy procedure, the culmination of a semester's work learning about the endangered species.
“We spent the whole semester learning about the biology, their life cycles, and why they're on Cape Cod to begin with,” said Picariello, who added that the bigger piece of the project is encouraging students to pay more attention to the plight of the turtles.
“The big picture really is the sea turtle conservation. We talk about how they're an endangered species and that we're lucky enough to have them on Cape Cod for part of the year.”
Picariello explained that many Cape residents have little idea that the traditionally tropical turtles visit the area to feed.
“They migrate up here in spring and summertime to feed, and are supposed to go back south, but for some reason they're getting trapped in Cape Cod Bay and washing up on our shores,” said Picariello.
“It's mind blowing to think that they travel all that way,” said Monomoy senior Brandon Chase.
Bob Prescott, director of the Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary, said the program also involves drifters, special devices that students build and then launch into local waters to track currents, which could help scientists better understand why the turtles strand each year on the Cape. The next piece of the puzzle are the necropsies.
“Part of the understanding and the biology are the necropsies,” said Prescott. “Part of the curriculum is to understand organisms on a basic level. This is a totally unique experience for students. Even if they're not going to go on to be biologists, it's something for them to remember.”
With instruction from Audubon scientists, students opened up the turtles, getting a firsthand look at the internal organs, taking note of general body conditions, infections, tumors, and parasites, including one that can impact tiger sharks, a known predator of the turtles.
“[The kids] all thought it was going to be gross, but they all got into it,” said Picariello. “I tell them that when we do these things it might seem kind of gross, but once you get into it you're going to be amazed at what's inside when you open up the turtle.”
“We found a lot of sand in the throat, intestines and stomach,” said senior Andrew Kelley. “We gave the data to the people that work at Audubon so it might help in the future.”
Kelley said it changed his perspective on the waters of the Cape.
“We also looked at microbeads and how those impact the water,” he said. “I realized how delicate our ecosystem is on Cape Cod in particular because we have so many different endangered species here: whales, sharks, turtles. It really impacted my environmentalism.”
He enjoyed conducting the necropsy.
“I thought it was cool. I like learning with my hands,” he said. “I thought it was cool that we were working with such an endangered species. You see them on videos and stuff, down in the tropics, but when you really see one you realize how vulnerable they are.”
Picariello said increasing student awareness regarding turtles and other endangered species was part of the goal of the class.
“Just for kids to know that this is happening where they live and that they have an opportunity to be part of sea turtle conservation is amazing,” she said. “Just getting the kids involved in a local research project, just making them more aware of the environment they live in and that there are animals that live here that could use our help.”
“It was very interesting and it was a good experience to see what their organ system is like and how they function,” said Chase. “Mine didn't have any food in its stomach.”
Starvation is a common cause of death in the cold-stunned creatures, which Picariello's students learned firsthand. Also part of the course was an extra-credit turtle scouting beach walk. Students were encouraged to walk local bayside beaches and look for turtles. One student, Tori McCormack, was thrilled to find and help rescue a stranded Kemp's ridley.
Prescott said the collective curriculum involved in the class goes a long way toward instilling a greater sense of environmentalism in students. He was impressed with the engagement of Picariello's most recent class.
“These are our future leaders. They're going to have to make decisions on how to save increasingly rare, wild pieces of Cape Cod,” he said. “This is reality. This is what a biologist does.”