Undergraduate Eamon Caffrey ’23 focused his four years at the University of Vermont (UVM) on research to enhance his major in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology. He studied turtle nesting success on Cape Cod. His research experience led to a field position after graduation and the desire to apply to graduate school.

Eamon grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts, near Boston. His family vacationed on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where he developed a passion for fishing and observing wildlife.

Once he discovered that wildlife biology was a college subject, Eamon used it as a key word in his college search. When UVM popped up with its Wildlife and Fisheries Biology program and its proximity to his hometown, it all fit together for him. He was admitted to the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and to the UVM Honors College.

“I liked the idea of graduating with honors and having research experience right out of undergraduate school,” said Eamon, who found the independent work extremely valuable in developing a research study for his required Honors College senior thesis.

First, he set out to find his own project. While staying on Cape Cod with his family, he noticed turtle crossing signs along the roadway. Curious, he reached out to local turtle conservation project leader, Bill Allan, a longtime volunteer with Mass (Massachusetts) Audubon in the town of Wellfleet. Intrigued with Bill’s work to protect nests, eggs, and hatchlings of the northern diamondback terrapin—a threatened species in Massachusetts—Eamon was determined to help study the nesting success of this terrapin. It is the only freshwater turtle in North America that lives in the brackish water (less salty than sea water) of salt marshes, tidal creeks, and estuaries from Virginia to Cape Cod.

Back at the Rubenstein School, Eamon found guidance and mentorship from Professor Jed Murdoch and Assistant Professor Brittany Mosher, who became his academic and honors thesis advisor. Brittany encouraged him to apply the courses he was taking to earn minors in both Forestry and Zoology to complement his major concentration in Wildlife Biology.

But his honors thesis research experience had the most influence, by far, on his academic pathway at UVM, especially with Brittany and Jed to guide him through the process. His faculty mentors helped him apply for research funding through the UVM Office of Fellowships, Opportunities and Undergraduate Research. He received a UVM Gund Institute for Environment student grant to conduct his turtle research project and cover living expenses on the Cape the summer of his junior year.

Field Research

Eamon served as a field assistant for the Eastham Conservation Foundation and, in collaboration with Bill, who manages turtle nesting sites in Eastham, just below Wellfleet, Eamon studied the northern diamondback terrapin in the salt marshes of the Cape. There, each summer, female turtles travel from marshes to nest in sand and gravel above the tide line.

Human development, habitat loss, and predators, such as raccoons and skunks, on the Cape brought remaining terrapin populations near extirpation in the early 2000s. Since 2002, Bill has worked to protect turtle nests with wire cages and release hatchlings to help populations survive.

Desiccation during dry periods, ants, and parasitic fly maggots also endanger turtle eggs and hatchlings. Eamon wanted to find out if substrate (sand or gravel) had any effect on egg desiccation or ant or fly infestation. With help from Brittany and Jed, Eamon developed a study design to investigate whether substrate and location have effects on nest success.

Eamon and Bill split the summer into two seasons: nesting season from June through early July and hatching season from August to October following 70 days of egg incubation under the sand. The pair spent long hours visiting and carefully digging into more than 800 nests to observe and count eggs and hatchlings. They documented the number killed by desiccation, ants, or fly maggots and used GPS to identify nest site locations.

Eamon collected substrate samples and included in his analysis four different nesting substrates used by the turtles: beach sand, dune sand, upland sand, and mixed sand—mostly found on pathways and roads between dune and upland sites. Eamon statistically analyzed his 2022 observational data along with prior year observations from Bill.

“We made a good team—an experienced conservationist and a student of science,” said Eamon.

Eamon found that dune sand posed the greatest risk for eggs and hatchlings especially from desiccation and fly maggot infestation. Upland and beach sand nests held the lowest risk and the greatest survival for eggs and hatchlings.

Bill has created more nesting sites in upland areas away from roads. He clears vegetation from 50-feet by 50-feet areas to create “turtle gardens” for nesting. Bill and Eamon already saw more nests in the cleared garden areas from one year to the next. They hope this management technique will shift the turtles from the dunes and increase nest success.

“I like that my research findings can be applied to management and conservation of the terrapin,” said Eamon. “I got to research something I care about that could have an impact.”

After graduation, Eamon is headed back to Cape Cod to work with Mass Audubon on the diamondback terrapin nesting project as a field technician June through mid-October. After a year of work experience, Eamon will apply to graduate school to study wildlife, with a special emphasis on reptiles and amphibians.

“I learned that if you put yourself out there, find what you are passionate about, and stay with it,” said Eamon, “you can be successful and get a job doing what you love.”


Shari Halik