Tuesday, February 10, 2015

NOAA Fisheries Research Team Uses Instagram to Find and Tag an Endangered Smalltooth Sawfish in Florida Everglades

Dana M. Bethea, Research Ecologist & Co-PI/FPC of NOAA Juvenile Smalltooth Sawfish Survey

My field team and I had been working out of Chokoloskee, Florida, in the northern portion of Everglades National Park for two, long days. Over dinner, and on a whim, we checked Instagram for sawfish photos. A photo of a juvenile smalltooth sawfish popped up with the hashtag #Flamingo.

Photo 1: Image posted to Instagram by Josh Boyd.
Grace, the technician on the survey, immediately sent the gentleman who posted the photo, Mr. Josh Boyd, a message telling him about our work and that we were planning to do some research in Flamingo (in the far south of the Everglades National Park), for the first time in over 7 years. Knowing young-of-the-year and small juvenile sawfish occupy very specific locations for the first few months of their lives, she asked if he would send us the exact location information for where he saw and photographed the animal.  
Mr. Boyd recalled seeing the information board, which requests that fishers report their sawfish encounters, at the Flamingo Campground. After reading the sign, he looked up and immediately saw a sawfish swimming in crystal clear water over the mud flat! He snapped a few photos, posted one to Instagram (Photo 1) and called both the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Charlotte Harbor Field Lab in Charlotte Harbor, and the International Sawfish Encounter Database at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida. As far as public reports of sawfish encounters go, his response was perfect from start to finish.

Late on the following Sunday evening, we arrived in Flamingo in the middle of a downpour. It continued to rain hard all night and our rented RV (camper van) was leaking badly. On Monday morning, we located the the campground and the sawfish sign board. The weather offshore looked bleak. It was 10 am, an incoming tide, and the water clarity was low.  After weeks of meticulous planning and travel coordination, I was disappointed that we were being forced to go home early. Knowing that this would be our only chance, we waded in waist deep, set gear from the shoreline, and took shelter from the weather in our field truck.

Imagine our elation when we caught a sawfish! We were literally (yes, literally!) jumping up and down with joy. This one animal made the sleepless night in a leaky RV worth it. She was a beautiful, healthy young-of-the-year female smalltooth sawfish, measuring 78.5 cm stretched total length (30.9”). I cannot be sure that this is the same animal from Instagram; however, this animal was likely 2-3 weeks old as the umbilical scar was open (Photo 2) and her rostrum was still partially covered in a jelly-like sheath (Photo 3).
Photo 2 (left): open umbilical scar. Photo 3 (right): rostrum partially covered in a jelly-like sheath.

Field team members prepare to release a young-of-the-year smalltooth sawfish at the Flamingo Campground on October 21, 2014. L to R: Holli Wood, Tonya Wiley-Lescher, Dana Bethea and Grace Casselberry.

Since our return, I have been sharing this unique story of scientists connecting with the public through social media. I want the public to know that it takes cooperation from all stakeholders to accomplish this research. This is, I believe, an awesome example of crowd-sourced science and should be used to promote smalltooth sawfish awareness, especially in southwest Florida where it is needed most.

Funding for research is provided through the NOAA Fisheries Service Southeast Regional Office in St. Petersburg, FL, and follows guidelines outlined in permits EVER-2014-SCI-0009 and ESA-17787. Special thanks to Mr. Josh Boyd for providing detailed encounter information as well as use of his Instagram photo.

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