Professor Emeritus Llewellyn Ehrhart, known internationally for his long-term research and advocacy for sea turtles, has been named the UCF Arboretum’s inaugural Earth Day Conservation Hero.

Ehrhart retired from the Department of Biology in 2004 after more than 30 years researching sea turtle-nesting productivity on Florida’s east coast, which helped scientists understand the turtle population status and trends. His work helped lead the federal government to establish the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard and Indian River counties, which has become one of the most densely nested habitats for green sea turtles and loggerheads in the western hemisphere.

“Earth Day is a day to celebrate the earth and to reflect upon the many environmental challenges we still face,” says biology Professor Patrick Bohlen, director of the Arboretum, which will hold a post-pandemic ceremony to honor the researcher. Earth Day is celebrated nationally on April 22, which also happens to be Ehrhart’s birthday.

“I cannot think of a person more deserving of this inaugural award than Dr. Ehrhart for his significant contributions to conservation science and the legacy of his sea turtle program.”

Although his classroom teaching career has come to a close, his research and productivity are far from over.

Although his classroom teaching career has come to a close, his research and productivity are far from over.

“Llew leaves an incredible legacy. He inspired countless students, biologists, and conservationists, many of whom have gone on to be leaders in the field of sea turtle conservation,” says Associate Professor Kate Mansfield, a marine biologist who now leads the UCF Marine Turtle Research Center. “Llew’s career spanned approximately one turtle generation — and within that timeframe, he contributed to federal and state protections for sea turtles, helped ensure the recovery of at least one species, and laid the foundation for another ‘turtle generation’ of long-term data and research in Central Florida.”

Ehrhart, who goes by the nickname “Doc,” earned his doctorate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. His dissertation research focused on the biology and ecology of three species of mice in Florida, and he made numerous trips south to understand mice behaviors in the wild.

As he was close to graduation, a friend called to see if he were interested in a position as a mammologist at a new university that had just opened in Orlando. He accepted the position at Florida Technological University, the original name of UCF, shortly after it opened its doors in 1968. Ehrhart arrived in the spring of 1969 ready to teach and better understand small mammals.

In 1972, Ehrhart received NASA funding to look at vertebrate ecology at Kennedy Space Center. He lured a fellow graduate student from Cornell, Franklin “Buck” Snelson, whose doctoral research focused on fish, to join him on the faculty at FTU and on the KSC research.

Ehrhart and his students began collecting data on both small mammals and sea turtles after he discovered that little was known about turtle nesting behaviors. When NASA funding ended, Ehrhart’s team continued to monitor sea turtle nesting on beaches that were north of the space center and now part of Canaveral National Seashore. This was the start of Ehrhart’s major contribution to the long-term data collection on sea turtle nesting along the Florida coast.

Tracking sea turtles on nesting beaches only provides a small snapshot on the life of this ancient reptile. At the time, virtually nothing was known about juveniles along the coast, except for harvest records from the Indian River Lagoon in the 1800s and early 1900s. In the early 1970s, none was reported in Mosquito Lagoon.

But Ehrhart had a feeling the animals, especially the juvenile green sea turtles, were spending time in this lush lagoon. So on a bet, he searched for — and netted — a juvenile sea turtle in the lagoon in 1976.

Netting to understand abundances, distributions and the biology of sea turtles continues to this day with Ehrhart still participating in field research.

We now know that green sea turtles weighing up to 130 pounds and under 13 years old are common residents of the Indian River Lagoon. This research has also led to more than 20 years of studying fibropapillomatosis, tumors on sea turtles that result from viral infections. UCF scientists are only now closing in on the viral pathogen and transmission mechanisms. Researchers around the globe have followed Ehrhart’s lead, and decades of rich data of juvenile sea turtles is now available from catch-and-release netting in estuaries and lagoons.

And on the coast, Ehrhart and his team continued to monitor sea turtle nesting along Canaveral National Seashore shorelines. Archie Carr, a globally recognized turtle researcher from the University of Florida, provided the team with its first metal tags to identify female sea turtles returning to nest in 1975.

Over time, global studies have documented that female sea turtles do return to their natal beaches to nest. Animal tagging and tracking methodologies have evolved tremendously over time, but all show similar patterns. Turtles repeatedly return to the same beaches to nest. Hence, the urgency of protecting these beaches. For example, UCF has data documenting one leatherback sea turtle, first tagged in 1994, returned every two to three years to nest in the national wildlife refuge for more than 20 years.

Researchers around the globe have followed Ehrhart’s lead, and decades of rich data of juvenile sea turtles is now available from catch-and-release netting in estuaries and lagoons.

Through the years, Ehrhart received many accolades. He was named a Pegasus Professor, UCF’s highest faculty honor, and was given the Archie Carr Lifetime Achievement Award, the Carnegie Florida Professor of the Year, and the International Sea Turtle Society Lifetime Achievement Award.

He says he thinks his most significant contribution to understanding and helping the turtle population was his research that helped make the wildlife refuge a reality. He is quick to note that many others helped, too, including hundreds of students, beach trash collectors, turtle rehabbers, the Nature Conservancy, Disney, the Mellon Foundation, among others.

Ehrhart says some of his most memorable experiences during his career were collaborating with his students and recording some firsts for the Indian River Lagoon, including the first small-toothed sawfish recorded in more than 75 years. He also met some celebrities who were interested in turtle conservation, including actress Loretta Swit, who played Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on the TV show M*A*S*H, actor LeVar Burton from PBS’s Reading Rainbow, and model Lauren Hutton.

He says he is grateful for the refuge because it will help protect the sea turtle, beach, dunes and the terrestrial flora and fauna into the future.

And what does that future look like?

“When you witness green turtle nest numbers go from 32 nests over a 13-mile stretch of beach in 1982 to over 15,000 nests per year during your career, you have to be optimistic,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if our 401Ks grew like that?”