Dr. Spotila and Students Travel to Costa Rica Over Spring Break

By Giby George
Photos by Kevin Hoffman

June 29, 2010 — Dr. James R. Spotila, Betz Chair Professor of Environmental Science, is considered one of the principal authorities on the physiological ecology of sea turtles. As the founding president of the International Sea Turtle Society and the president of the Leatherback Trust in Costa Rica, he is also one of the foremost advocates for the preservation of leatherback turtles. He was recently honored with the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Award in Biological Sciences, the National Outdoor Book Award in Nature and Environment, and the title of Outstanding Academic Title from Choice magazine for his 2004 book Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to their Biology, Behavior, and Conservation.

Spotila Costa RicaFor several years now, Spotila has been committed to preserving leatherback turtles, which are currently facing extinction due to threats of poaching and fishing. Improved awareness and publicity is necessary to save the species. This can seem daunting however, especially when considering that the majority of current biology majors are pre-med and therefore, not focused on the implications of such ecological threats. Spotila points out that these threats will inevitably impact the entire world, including the field of medicine. But aside from the importance of biodiversity and the potential medical benefits of the leatherback turtle, Spotila reminds us that, “from an ethical standpoint, we don’t have the right to allow something to go extinct.”

In addition to his research, Spotila also teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses on topics ranging from Biophysical Ecology to Global Warming and the Economy. In fact, just this year, in March of 2010, Spotila and his Tropical Ecology Field Studies class spent an industrious spring break in Costa Rica, where they studied the abundant tropical ecosystems.

After arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica, the group immediately traveled to Arenal Volcano, where they stayed for a few days to study the rainforest. On a typical day, Spotila and his students were up and ready for breakfast by 7:00 a.m. Their meal would consist of either cereal or a stop at a nearby restaurant, depending on the time. The group would then proceed with their field work, namely observing, identifying, and taking notes on the various ecosystems. Lunch took the form of anything from a sit-down meal, to a package of cookies, to nothing at all. The group would then continue with their field work until 8:00 p.m., at which time they would regroup for dinner at a local restaurant. Following dinner, the group would return to their lodgings to work on their notes and discuss the ecosystems studied during the day. By the end of the trip, they had observed over 250 species.

“We got to see dry forests, wet forests, coastal ecosystems, tidal pools and mangroves—all in nine days. While we were in the mangroves, we got to see a group of howler monkeys cross the river above our heads, with their babies in tow…[I]t was a once in a lifetime trip,” said Brian Kelley, a graduate student on the trip.

Following their stay in the rainforest, the group traveled to Las Baulas National Park in Guanacaste Province to study one of the most important leatherback turtle nesting sites.

“In Playa Grande, we participated in daily turtle walks up and down the beach at sunrise to search for any sea turtle hatchlings that had started the trek down toward the ocean. It was always very suspenseful, but [a] thrilling way to start the day,” said Kevin Smith, another graduate student.

Spotila Costa Rica"One morning, we were able to collect and save 11 Olive Ridley sea turtle hatchlings. We kept them cool and safe at the facility until later that night and successfully released them into the Pacific.”

Although the trip wasn’t meant to be a vacation, Spotila noted that, for a biologist, “it’s all fun…[because] you get to play outside all the time.”

And the students seemed to share the same opinion.

“One of the biggest benefits of this program was context; after years of learning about these complex relationships in tropical environments, actually getting the opportunity to witness the specialization that occurs is priceless,” said Smith.

In addition to contributing locally to the university as an active researcher and faculty member, Spotila contributes globally to the health and preservation of our planet. He tries to inspire his students to do the same, and to act as ethical human beings, not only by teaching them about ecological topics in the classroom, but also by allowing them to observe and experience first-hand various ecosystems and the potential consequences of the gradual loss of natural habitats. It is because of this willingness to allow his students to experientially understand ecological topics that Spotila supersedes the traditional definition of a professor.

For more information about Dr. James R. Spotila, his publications, and his dedication to preserving leatherback turtles, please visit:

Click on the images below for a larger size.

Giby George is a pre-med biology major, currently in her fourth year. Inspired by interning for the Drexel Publishing Group for the past two terms and being featured in The 33rd anthology, Giby hopes to continue to write for many years to come. In her spare time, aside from writing, keeping up with her schoolwork, and working in the operating room of a hospital on the weekends, Giby enjoys traveling and exposing herself to new experiences.

Kevin Hoffman received his B.S. in Digital Media from Drexel University in 2009, and is currently working full-time as a web designer.