Herpetologist Highlight

Public hatchling releases are one of the most rewarding aspects of my job—they make the long, sleepless nights worth it!

Name: Donna Jill Shaver, Ph.D.

Age: 60

Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram: http://www.nps.gov/pais/

Facebook: Padre Island NS Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery

Present work: National Park Service, Padre Island National Seashore, Corpus Christi, Texas

Position: Chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery and Texas Coordinator for the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network

How did you get there? It was quite a journey from my undergraduate studies in Wildlife Biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to the beaches of South Texas.  I had not seen a live sea turtle until I joined the Student Conservation Association (SCA) as an assistant and volunteer in 1980. As they say, “right place, right time” and that was me. The Kemp’s ridley Head Start program to reestablish a secondary nesting colony for the most endangered species of sea turtle on the planet had been underway for only a couple of years. It was a bi-national cooperative effort utilizing sea turtle eggs from Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas, Mexico imprinted to Padre Island National Seashore (PAIS). As a young biologist raised in New York State, I was enthralled with the important goal of supporting such an endangered species. I was working and rubbing sandy shoulders with important scientists like Dr. Henry Hildebrand.  I became enamored with the South Texas environment and realized my destiny lay with this elegant sea turtle species.

Continuing my education with a Master’s in Biology from Texas A&I University, Kingsville and then a Doctorate in Zoology from Texas A&M University, College Station all while working and volunteering in various positions through the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey became at times an exercise in survival…for me and the turtles.

The excitement was about to start in 1986 when patrols for nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtles began on PAIS (the largest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world). For the next 9 years the beaches of PAIS were scanned in whatever beach-worthy vehicles were available from April through July looking for those head-started turtles that may now have reached maturity…with no luck. I was beginning to feel like Linus from the Peanuts comic strip who sat in the pumpkin patch awaiting the arrival of The Great Pumpkin…who never came.  I was told by my professors and advisors to “Give it up, Donna” and move on to a more secure pursuit. I’d like to think that it was my inner fortitude rather than hardheaded stubbornness that propelled me to continue the search.

Finally in 1996, a nesting head-started Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was discovered crawling on the soft Padre Island sand, digging a hole she couldn’t even see and laying a multitude of round, slippery eggs. She was beautiful to behold, a soft gray with creamy undersides. She was testimony to the success of the Head Start endeavor and was the beginning of the next phase of my professional life.

In my current role as Chief of Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery, I oversea a network of NPS biologists, Seasonal Biological Technicians and dedicated volunteers who patrol not just PAIS but major portions of the Texas Coast each nesting season. From that first year when a total of 6 nests were discovered to the highest number (so far) of 353, I have seen thousands of hatchlings crawl with purpose into the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I have likely released the hatchling children and grandchildren of those early imprinted turtles and as I set each one on the sand I know that it carries my hope for a more secure future for this age old species.


Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position?

Well, certainly any serious scientific pursuit comes with challenges. Some expected like ongoing funding issues, some anticipated like gender bias towards a woman scientist, and some just rise up out of the depth like the calamitous Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010. This wasn’t the first oil spill that I have dealt with but I would like it to be the last. Some years I seem to be trying to keep dozens of turtle plates spinning all at once as I put out funding fires with my other hand. I do have professional staff and NPS personnel in other divisions that I depend on for support.


What advice do you give to someone interested in your profession? What advice might you have for someone from an underrepresented group who is interested in entering your field?

Be laser-focused towards your goals yet willing to stay open to all possibilities.  Read and learn all you can from multiple sources. This is a time when we need to have young scientists realize that their devotion to a cause can bring needed changes to the planet.


What’s your favorite herp? Although I did my doctoral work with Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas), I would have to say that the small critically endangered Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) is my favorite.


Why are you an HL member? As a scientist I want to stay abreast of current information and be a part of a scientific community


Is there anything else you would like to add? Like all scientists today concerned with the climate change crisis, I need to mention the impending catastrophe ahead for sea turtles and other reptiles whose gender is determined by incubation temperatures. Predictions of a predominant population of female sea turtles seem to be only a few decades away. Some of the Kemps ridley eggs that are collected on PAIS are incubated in a temperature-controlled environment. Perhaps this will be the technology needed to ensure a balance of genders in the future for sea turtle survival.


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Public hatchling releases are one of the most rewarding aspects of my job—they make the long, sleepless nights worth it!


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