Research Projects

Effective conservation methods begin with sound research. To better understand a species, how it interacts with its environment, and what changes may be affecting that relationship, the Aquarium is committed to applied research and collaborating with other researchers to answer important scientific questions. Researchers and students interested in collaborating with the Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores can view our research protocol or contact Wendy Cluse, Conservation & Research Coordinator (252-247-4003 x267;

Oyster spat

The Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is participating with the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) in a spatfall study. “Spat” is the name for the larval oyster that settles on reefs, pilings or just about any surface before growing out to adult size. The spatfall study uses tile racks to track times, locations and sizes of seasonal spatfalls. The results of the study will help the North Carolina Department of Marine Fisheries target areas for restoration and time reef-building restoration efforts in order to capture the maximum amount of settling spat. Visit UNCW’s spat website to learn more.



Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are elusive turtles that inhabit shallow, brackish water marsh and tidal creeks exclusively. Here they play an important role in the ecosystem as both predator and prey. They have small home ranges which puts the species at high risk of local extirpation if threats are high. In North Carolina, diamondback terrapins are classified as a species of Special Concern. This characterization does not afford any special protection but classifies it as a species in need of more study to better understand its population status and threats. Bycatch of terrapins in blue crab pots has been identified as a major threat to the species. The Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has stated the critical need for statewide research, educational outreach programs, and gear modification testing to reduce terrapin bycatch and effectively manage the species. Given the minimal amount of data on local terrapin populations, we felt it was urgent that work be done in the local waters to better understand this species and provide it the protection needed to avoid endangerment.

Working with UNC Wilmington, our project (conducted in spring-summer 2012) achieved the following goals:

o Conducted head count surveys by boat in area marshes to gain information on local populations and habitats. Terrapins were observed in 4 of our 5 survey sites.

o Tested the effectiveness of bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) in crab pots to exclude terrapins from entering and potentially drowning in pots. Full data analysis is pending, but terrapins were never caught in pots with BRDs.

o Determined the usefulness of a modified pot design in catching terrapins in a non-lethal way for research.




Many universities and agencies have collaborated with the Aquarium on research projects and for logistical support. Below are links to reports, summaries, and publications resulting from these partnerships:


Sea turtle tagging

Once rehabilitated sea turtles are released, Aquarium visitors often want to know whether they survive and where they go. Satellite tracking is an increasingly popular method researchers and educators use to collect data on turtle movements. A small lightweight satellite transmitter tag is attached to the turtles’ shells to track movements through computer-generated data. The device sends a satellite signal whenever the turtle surfaces, indicating the animal’s location. The satellite returns the signal to a processing center where the data are compiled and mapped.

Satellite tracking science can also help determine sea turtle migratory patterns and local feeding and nesting movements. Satellite tag batteries last six months on average and then transmissions cease. Eventually the tag falls off or is knocked off the turtle’s shell. Before turtles are released, they also receive a flipper tag and an internal tag that can be read with a bar-code reader. If the turtle is seen again, such as when nesting, researchers can “reconnect” it with the earlier migratory data gained from satellite tracking. See the Aquarium’s latest sea turtle tagging annual report (2012).

The public can track the Aquarium’s released turtles!  Click on the links below to view active maps for turtles whose tags are currently transmitting and archived maps for turtles tagged in years past.

Rehabilitated green sea turtle monitoring

Juvenile loggerhead sea turtle monitoring