To be honest, I never thought a Georgia Sea Grant fellowship would appeal to me or my career path. My research interests have always been on inland systems from freshwater swamp to dry sandhills. My research as an undergraduate and my master’s thesis at Georgia Southern University has been in xeric upland habitat working with lizards — not many connections to the ocean there. However, when I saw the opportunity to work with the predators of Jekyll Island, I couldn’t pass that up.
Jekyll Island State Park is a small barrier island on the Georgia coast that is accessible by causeway. Jekyll hosts around 1,000 residents and over 3 million visitors annually. Jekyll is a sustainably developed community with only one-third of the island allowed to be developed, which leaves the task of managing habitats and mitigating wildlife conflicts to the Jekyll Island Authority’s (JIA) Conservation Department, which is where I am working as part of my Georgia Sea Grant State Fellowship this year.
My primary duty involves management of ongoing research projects. The most prominent project involves using radio telemetry to study the ecology of Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (EDB). Anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss, roads, and persecution led to steep population declines across their range. Long-term studies, like the one on Jekyll, provide vital information about management and persistence of EDBs.
Each week I track roughly 10 individual snakes using radio telemetry and take notes on behavior and habitat. I also maintain a large database with all this information. Occasionally, I conduct field surveys to find additional snakes, and, seasonally, I carefully handle EDBs to obtain growth and health data. While working so closely with one of my favorite species is a huge perk, it is not the only reason I am enjoying my time with the Jekyll Island’s conservation department. My supervisors, Joseph Colbert, Jekyll Island wildlife biologist, and Yank Moore, Jekyll Island director of conservation, encourage participation with other ongoing projects or events as opportunities arise. On a monthly basis, I assist with alligator surveys. During these surveys I capture alligators on the island, collecting measurements, marking them, and collecting blood and tissue samples. Additionally, I work with collaborators, including The Rattlesnake Conservancy where I assist this with educational events and a variety of field surveys focused on EDBs. Other duties of my fellowship include invasive species removal, habitat restoration, terrapin monitoring, wildlife response, prescribed burning, and shorebird surveys.
Because of this fellowship, I have gained more skills, experiences, and obtained new certifications, including the Type II Wildland Firefighter certification, that I can add to my resume. Additionally, Colbert and Moore ensure I have freedom to start projects within my skillset that are beneficial to the island. I have started conducting surveys for invasive amphibians, reptiles, and parasites, collecting genetic samples of different species. Additionally, I have helped connect other research colleagues to Jekyll Island Authority, giving them access to new field sites while increasing the scope of research on Jekyll.
My position as a Georgia Sea Grant State Fellow working with the Jekyll Island Authority has been a great experience. I have gained critical professional experiences and I’m only halfway through my fellowship. I would absolutely recommend this opportunity to anyone who is looking for a fellowship focused on herpetology or predator ecology. However, I do have a few warnings. Coastal Georgia is humid and rife with biting bugs. Despite these conditions, I am looking forward to the rest of my time and will certainly miss the island, working with Jekyll Island Authority’s Conservation Department, and the rattlesnakes I have come to know so well.
Georgia Sea Grant is currently accepting applications for the State Fellowship program. Learn more at https://gacoast.uga.edu/state-fellowship/