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From his front porch at Wewa, the name he and his wife Marjorie gave their home a dozen miles outside Gainesville, Carr liked to gaze out across his yard—and see Africa.
Wewa sat near Payne's Prairie—a vast geologic anomaly caused by an ancient collapse of underlying limestone. The result was a 50-square-mile plain as flat as any beast-strewn savanna he'd seen on his numerous trips to Africa. While tubing down the nearby Ichetucknee River one day, Carr had found two large, prehistoric molars belonging to two different species of mammoths. He mused about how these great beasts, together with saber—toothed tigers, jaguars, camels and giant tortoises, had once shared similar grounds in Africa during the Ice Age, long before the earth's ecology got so complicated.
Notably, Carr had spent his entire career as an ecologist, even though as a distinct field of biology, the term “ecology” was little heard before 1970. Carr was in his mid-70s when his own ecological specialty—conservation biology—got formally recognized as a field unto itself. In doing so, the field became a keystone in Carr's legacy to science, spawning a whole new range of research in fields from wildlife management to population genetics.
Fittingly, it fell to one of Carr's graduate students—David Ehrenfeld—to be tapped as the founding editor of The Journal of Conservation Biology, the voice of the Society for Conservation Biology, founded in 1985. Now a professor of biology at Rutgers University, Ehrenfeld followed the lead of his favorite college professor and launched a second career as a writer. He exemplifies the high caliber of doctoral students that remains one of Carr's finest legacies.
Conspicuously, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation remains at the forefront of Carr's legacy as the preeminent champion of sea turtle conservation. Still based in Gainesville, the non-profit CCC maintains strong projects in research and conservation around the world, including Tortuguero, where it runs the John H. Phipps Biological Field Station within the Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge, established in 1994. The station still runs the largest turtle-tagging program in the world and trains students from throughout Latin America in marine conservation.
In 2008, the International Sea Turtle Society will host its 28th annual meeting, this one in Baja, Mexico. Carr's work is generally regarded as the driving force behind the event, which typically attracts more than 1,500 sea turtle biologists, marine conservationists and ecologists from around the world. Larry Ogren, Carr's chief of tagging operations on Tortuguero in 1956, attended the group's first meeting, held in Jacksonville.
“What spawned it all was Archie Carr,” Ogren told Research in Review. “All the awareness (of sea turtles' plight) we see in the world today, Archie was definitely responsible for that.”
Now retired from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Ogren was a key member of the federal agency's lab based in Panama City, Florida, which developed the world's first practical turtle excluding device, or TED, for the shrimping industry. For decades, biologists have blamed the industry for killing more turtles—by trapping them in trawls where they drown—than any other human activity. In 1987, equipping shrimp nets with TEDS became mandatory in all U.S. waters. Though enforcement is spotty, the use of TEDS is generally credited with saving tens of thousands of turtles every year.
In summing up Carr's legacy, Davis singles out his “intellectual children and grandchildren”—his original students and now their kids—who have amassed more than 50 years of data on marine turtles, reportedly the longest running stretch of scientific research ever conducted on an animal. A number of Carr's former students fill prominent roles in turtle conservation efforts around the world.
Perhaps most notable of these is Karen Bjorndal, who worked with Carr almost daily for the last 20 years of his life. Bjorndal is director of UF's Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, set up as a tribute to Carr the year before he died. The center directs research on the entire range of turtle biology using an array of high-tech tools ranging from satellite telemetry to genetic probes.
Just recently, Bjorndal's group succeeded in using DNA tags to confirm one of Carr's key theories on where loggerhead turtles spend their first year at sea—far out into the Atlantic in gigantic eddies stretching all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The study found that roughly half of the turtles feeding in the western Mediterranean come from nesting beaches in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Though he knew little about genetic tagging, such news no doubt would have put a smile on Carr's face just as had Sibella's words—“de turtle nevah finish”—so long ago.
“I believe that if he were around today, Archie Carr would say his greatest legacy is what's become of the turtles,” Davis said.
Despite terrific threats from pollution, loss of nesting habitat, commercial fishing gear, poaching and disease, most sea turtle species are hanging in there, Davis reports, and some are doing remarkably well. Davis cites recent estimates that peg a worldwide population of green turtles above 88,000. Sea turtle nests at Tortuguero have jumped from a low of 15,000 in 1971 to nearly 80,000 in 2005.
But other species, notably the loggerheads and the leatherbacks, are still suffering and face serious challenges to survival. Populations of both are dropping sharply in many parts of the world, including the Southeastern U.S. Estimates by international wildlife watchdog groups claim that a combination of enormous, open-ocean drift nets, and a type of commercial fishing known as “long-lining”—essentially using miles of baited hooks—kill up to a quarter million loggerheads and up to 60,000 leatherbacks each year.
Still, Archie Carr's singular quest—to save turtles from the fate of so many of the creatures exploited by humans—is seen by Davis and many others as one of the noblest and most successful campaigns in the history of modern science. Thousands of well-trained soldiers are now in turtle-saving campaigns in nearly 60 countries around the world, thanks to an Alabama-born naturalist who knew how to write. Carr's talent with words can't be underestimated, in Davis' view.
“Archie was a brilliant, gifted writer, and that clearly sets him apart from so many other fine scientists of his day,” Davis said. “He was a first-rate biologist, a born naturalist. But I think it's absolutely true that his gift with the written work helped to establish his legacy as the man who saved sea turtles.”