AR-News: (FL) Boca Raton turns up heat on turtle egg predators
Animalara2003 at aol.com
Animalara2003 at aol.com
Thu Nov 27 05:29:38 EST 2003
By Neil Santaniello
Posted November 27 2003
BOCA RATON · First, Kirt Rusenko turned to a liquid called Da'Bomb Ground
Chicken eggs were spiked with the tongue-scorching hot sauce and placed in
decoy sea turtle nests. Rusenko, the city's marine conservationist, used the
ploy to try to wean raccoons and foxes off their hunger for endangered sea turtle
eggs incubating under the sand.
The bottled sauce did not work as well as he had hoped, and it drew fire
ants, another turtle-egg destroyer.
Still, Rusenko didn't give up on the power of the hot pepper to see baby sea
turtles safely to sea. He has rebounded with a twist on his egg-defense
formula, and much better success thwarting nest raiders that creep onto the beach at
night from sand dunes and oceanfront parks.
Rusenko now uses hot habanero pepper powder to deter animals with a taste for
He sprinkles the dried pepper at the turtle nest in holes that predators
begin to dig to reach the nest cavity. Rusenko also uses flat, 4-by-4-foot squares
of steel mesh and small steel cages laid over the tops of buried turtle nests
to help seal off those at risk from excavating paws.
But Rusenko credits the famously hot habanero, not the metal barriers, for
this year's record-low losses of turtle eggs to predators. Animals destroyed
just 20 of 647 nests deposited on Boca Raton shoreline during the
March-to-October nesting season, compared with the usual 50 to 60, the city's lowest number
to date, he said.
Animals that return to tunnel after eggs again "get a nose full of powder,
and they don't come back," said Rusenko, director of sea turtle monitoring for
the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. "It's very painful. We get it in our eyes every
once in a while, and it's not pleasant."
The screens and cages certainly help keep animals at bay, "but raccoons learn
real quick how to get around [them]," said Rusenko, who started using the
powder midway through last summer.
State sea-turtle protection officials said they are aware of the
pepper-protection strategy and that it didn't appear interfere with turtle nests. They
described it as "negative reinforcement" for predators, and said they are
awaiting a report from Rusenko on his findings.
"We're OK in this instance," said Meghan Conti, a Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission biologist who oversees South Florida nest monitoring
work from Tequesta. But, she said, "By no means are we encouraging all of our
[nest-protection programs] to go ahead and try this."
Robbin Trindell, a state biologist administrator, said of Rusenko, "He's a
creative guy. We're willing to wait and see what he finds out."
Rusenko said this year's rabies epidemic in Palm Beach County virtually
eliminated foxes, usually the top egg predator, from city beaches this year. But he
said raccoons turned out in large enough numbers to counter the disappearance
of beach foxes.
The powder is used only after nest watchers see signs of digging, Rusenko
said, adding that it won't harm hatchlings. The tactic even protected the last
nest on the city beach in October, a clutch of eggs left by an endangered green
sea turtle. The last nest every season tends to come under heavy attack, and
this one was no exception -- until it was peppered with pepper, Rusenko said.
After that, "it sat there for three weeks," untouched before the hatchlings
emerged, he said. "Everybody went to the water. They were fine."
Rusenko, who went through eight pounds of the powder this nesting season,
intends to present his findings to the International Sea Turtle Symposium in
Costa Rica in February.
Boca Raton has the Palm Beach County's largest problem with marine-turtle egg
predators. Rusenko said Boca Raton has tried trapping raccoons -- at $50 per
animal -- but that the powder he buys for $63 per a 5-pound container is
considerably cheaper. Moreover, he said, the effect of trapping is only temporary.
Other raccoons eventually move in and multiply in place of those carted off,
Paul Davis, a county environmental supervisor, has another theory: "I think
Boca Raton just grows smart raccoons."
He said no other length of county beach experiences animal-nest raids
significant enough to require intervention to protect eggs.
Davis said the county once tried sprinkling cayenne pepper to fend off animal
egg thieves on the north end of the island of Palm Beach, but stopped the
practice after experimenting with it.
"Our conclusion was we were just seasoning the eggs," Davis said. "It did not
slow them down. But maybe cayenne is not as strong as habanero."
Neil Santaniello can be reached at nsantaniello at sun-sentinel.com or
"The greatness of a nation and it's moral progress can be judged by the way
it's animals are treated." ...Mahatma Gandhi
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