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Professor Patrick Harwood
Department of Communication


David Owens
Marine Biology

Professor David Owens

Diamondback Terrapins and the Future of Man
By Britt Berlauk

It was during his years in the Peace Corps while stationed in Fiji that Dr. David Owens' fascination with sea turtles began. "In 1970 I asked a local turtle fisherman to show me how he caught the turtles; he said he couldn't because there were hardly any left," Owens remembers. He explained that the nets the Fijian fishermen were using at the time were so effective that they practically wiped out the entire population of sea turtles in the area, which was a source of food for this community.


The idea that an entire species could be wiped out in a short period of time was a concern to Owens, so he began investigating the problem. He invited the top expert in the field, Dr. John Hendrickson of the University of Arizona, to dive with him and explore the habitat. His concern and attraction to the subject sparked the same kind of interest in Hendrickson who invited Owens to further study at the University of Arizona where Owens earned his doctorate in 1976.

Owens research does not solely focus around most conservationists' stereotypical "protect the environment and habitat" views. His research is more proactive. "My research is related to conservation, but I focus mostly on the reproductive and biological aspects of sea turtles and of the diamondback terrapin so that we can develop better ways to protect them," Owens says.

He says conserving and researching endangered species, like the diamondback terrapin, are extremely important to the human species. Not only is conservation important for the aesthetic appeal of the sea turtle, but its man's responsibility being the dominant species to be on top of the issue and research it, he adds.

Studying endangered species is primarily important because, as Owens explains, they are the "canary in the mine." In other words, studying animals that are becoming endangered is an accurate predictor of problems. Much like the canary that does not make it safely out of the mine, indicating toxic fumes and keeping men from the same fate; when animals are becoming extinct, there are more significant implications for man than simply the loss of a species.

Through Owens' study of the diamondback terrapin, he hopes to discover clues as to how man is doing in the larger picture. "While most sea turtles can leave when the weather gets too cold, the diamondback terrapin buries itself in the mud and becomes somewhat of a sentinel species," Owens says. This means that the diamondback is more susceptible to the cold and other environmental conditions that may not affect other populations of sea turtles that migrate. The conditions that cause these turtles to die are a sign that something is not right in the environment. When conditions are severe enough to cause the turtles to become nearly extinct, it is foreboding for mankind unless something is done to remedy it.

Although his research many times keeps him in front of a computer or secluded in the Grice laboratory, Owens is most happy when he's with his students. The enthusiasm and care he has for his students is obvious as he explains his ideal day as, "going out to do research with students, discovering what they're doing, and having a chance to do some of our own experiments." Owens continues by saying, "Working with students is the single most rewarding part of my job."

Only secondary to the pride he feels from working with his students and seeing them succeed, is the satisfaction he feels when his research becomes useful. Recently his research and activism have contributed to the growing number of the most endangered sea turtle, the kemps ridley. In 1978 he began work on the species and in 1989 he became the chairman of the committee to conserve and increase the population of this endangered species, and although he has since stepped down from his position as chairman, his research was crucial in the recovery plan that increased their population by one thousand percent --from only 300 females in 1985 to more than 3,000 today (2005).

Owens has already made in impact on both the marine environment and the lives of his students. Graduate student Gaelle Blanvillian says she has been inspired by Owens to study conservation biology. "Dave's enthusiasm and support throughout my graduate studies have been amazing," she says. "I learned so much from him and it's been a great experience to be a part of a project that involved my two passions: conservation biology and herpetology."