August 30, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: Peter Prichard

Turtle zoologist, director and founder of the Chelonian Research Institute; Oviedo; age 67

Amy Keller | 9/1/2010

» I grew up in a place where nobody was the slightest bit interested in turtles — namely, in Northern Ireland. There were no turtles in Northern Ireland. No turtle enthusiasts. Somehow that made it more interesting to me.

» Looking at it sort of ecologically, they’re a very ancient group and they co-existed, or even pre-existed, from the dinosaurs. ... Turtles never sought to be dominant. They had their niche, but they weren’t trying to be the dominant Tyrannosaurus or to be any huge dominant, powerful thing. They just wanted a place to live. And they in fact found it.

Dr. Peter Pritchard
Dr. Peter Pritchard [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

» I went to Oxford and did chemistry, same as Margaret Thatcher, but both of us switched. I found that chemistry had no human content. You’ve got fellow chemists, but beyond that, and they’re not particularly frolicsome people. Zoologists have a lot of fun. They travel and they find weird and wonderful creatures and they meet people you never expected to meet.

» Until recently, about a year ago, Florida exported soft shell turtles to China for food — high cost, gourmet food. These were caught in the wild by a relatively small number of people who had contracts with Chinese buyers, and they presented the case that they don’t think turtles are rare so why shouldn’t we do this. But adult turtles are not a good proposition for sustained take because they take a long time to grow up. So if you kill a turtle, you’ve probably killed something that took 20 years to get to that point.

» I went from Oxford to Gainesville to do my Ph.D. in zoology. In fact, that’s why I came to the University of Florida, where Archie Carr was the famous turtle man, and I talked my way into going there.

» The ugliest one is the Matamata turtle. Have you ever seen a Matamata? He’s very non-descript, looks like a sort of old piece of bark.

» In those very early days, they would ask various people like me and colleagues which turtles do you think we should put on the endangered list, and we’d say, ‘We’d put Ridleys on it — Leatherbacks and Hawksbills. That will do for a start.’ Then later on another colleague of mine, a pretty intense kind of guy, decided to sue the government if they didn’t put the other three species on as well. That did work out, so they were all listed. Which meant the Cedar Key turtle fishery had to be shut down and people weren’t allowed to touch hatchlings.

» Unlike the people who stop for live ones, I will stop for dead ones because then I can take them home and make skeletons out of them and contribute them to the collection.

» The Loggerhead beaches used to be pretty well pure Loggerhead beaches. Nothing else nested there. But two other species have crept in, namely the Green turtle and the Leatherback, which are basically Caribbean species, but they are now widespread on beaches in Florida. They’re coming up, up, up, and the Loggerhead has been going down, down, down. It’s a big surprise. There are thousands of Green turtle nests in Florida every season. That didn’t happen 30 years ago, and that could be a global warming thing because if these are tropical turtles and they’re in the Caribbean and if the Florida waters are traditionally a little bit cooler, but if it warms up as seems to be happening, these two tropical Caribbean species could start moving into the gap. And on the other hand, the Loggerhead might not be particularly happy with that warming.

» Southeast U.S.A. and Southeast Asia are the two most diversified areas in the world for turtles. The problem with Southeast Asia is they’ve eaten 90% of them.

» The Loggerhead, which we all thought was the easy one, the one that no one’s messing with Loggerheads because you can’t eat them and so on, they started to get rare. The numbers diminished in the last few years and didn’t seem to be climbing up, and there’s a real mystery because there’s no real documented exploitation occurring except maybe in Cuba, but they seem to be losing numbers.

» He was brilliant (Pritchard’s middle son, Dominic, who committed suicide in 2008 at age 33 after serving in the war in Iraq and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder). He was one of the most creative people I’ve ever encountered. He was very patriotic, and he joined the Marines completely voluntarily. Then he joined the Florida National Guard. He wanted to keep his hand in, even if he wasn’t going to be full-time military and then they were all yanked out to go to Iraq, and he was not happy with that at all. He didn’t think it was a good idea for the country, and he didn’t think it was a good idea for himself.

» What looks like a hopeless case of overspecialization — you look at a turtle skeleton and say, ‘this wouldn’t work; it’s a stupid design’ — somehow that stupid design has not only worked out, but diversified into things with huge flippers, into things with powerful walking legs like giant tortoises. Or things beyond description, like the Matamata. All with their niches, and reasonably abundant.

Audio clips

Hear Dr. Peter Pritchard speak about:

Turtle brains: "a very sophisticated auto-pilot"

Conservation efforts in Guyana

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