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June 18, 2013

International student utilizes time-lapse photography at Black Bayou Lake

Since the beginning of May, María Fernanda Blanco Pérez has taken more than 2,500 photographs of turtles and other animals at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

As an intern for ULM biology professor Dr. John Carr, Blanco studies the nesting habits of soft-shelled turtles in Black Bayou Lake, and her photographs tell the story, he said.

"She is doing a great job – putting in tremendous effort," said Carr. "She is getting some very interesting information."

Her research under Carr's supervision is a spin-off project of his work with alligator snapping turtles at Black Bayou Lake, sponsored by the Friends of Black Bayou.

"I've known about an area used heavily for nesting by soft-shelled turtles for many years, but I never had anyone dedicated to looking at the soft-shells. Now we are getting an idea of what is going on with the nesting there – when they nest, how long it takes, and how the turtle nests are destroyed by predators at an alarming rate."

Thanks to new time-lapse cameras, Blanco's thousands of photographs document both raccoons and crows preying on the turtle nests.

"My proudest moment was when we found the first alligator snapping turtle nest with Dr. Carr, and we could save it from raccoons," said Blanco.

"Now the eggs are developing safely in the herpetology lab."

Since beginning her work at ULM, Blanco has realized how much she enjoys fieldwork.

"I love going to the field. Fieldwork is the best part of biology, and here the biodiversity is completely different from what I am used to. I have a lot of new things to see," said Blanco.

Blanco grew up in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands.

As a student of biology at IE University in Segovia, Spain, she is finishing her third year of study and has one year left until graduation.

Her work with Carr will continue through the end of June.

"I have always been interested in biology, especially the interactions that occur in nature," she said.

She finds the swamps and alligators in Louisiana fascinating. The difference in wildlife populations caused some of her family members to be concerned, however.

"My father was really scared about snakes, especially cottonmouths," she said, "so they were a bit worried about me coming here and working in the field."

One of her professors at IE University, Manuel Merchán, is a friend of Carr's and arranged the internship.

"He contacted me in January about the possibility of hosting an intern for a couple of months, and I said sure. He told me she was a very good student, and I am in complete agreement."

Through a partnership between IE University and ULM, Blanco's work with Carr earns her credit toward her degree.

"I like the people here a lot," said Blanco. "Everybody has been so nice to me that I have not had time to miss home."

As she checks her cameras and her pictures in search of turtle nests, Blanco admits to missing only one aspect of her life at home.

"The sea," she said. "I come from a small island, so I am used to being near the sea." Though the sea is out of Blanco's reach in Monroe, the local swamps and lakes keep her busy.

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