Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sea Turtles - The Lost Years

Dr. Blair Witherington's presentation at the Sea Turtle Preservation Society meeting last week was predictably terrific. Blair is is a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and an internationally recognized sea turtle expert, so he knows his sea turtles inside and out. Amongst lots of other things, he described the newborn hatchlings' frenzied swim out to sea and how long they can survive on the egg nutrient they are born with (about 3 days). The "lost years" theme considered what these little critters do between the time they leave shore as newborns and when they return as mature adults (10 to 30 years, depending on species).

It turns out that much of what is known of sea turtles is fairly new knowledge. Blair talked about an experiment he was involved with several years ago as a graduate student that really captured my fancy - I asked him to share his photos so you could enjoy it also.

Blair and his buddies wanted to follow a hatchling to see where it went and "how it made a living", so they crafted the little raft shown above, equipped it with a red LED, attached it to a hatchling, hopped in a boat, and followed the hatchling pulling the lighted raft for three days! (That would be a YouTube video these days, and the hatchling would be named Surfer Dude.)

Long story short, eventually hatchlings need to be around sargasso (shown above), where they can find the food they like, rest a lot with their front flippers tucked on top of their back and their back flippers protecting their little butt against nibbling fish, and generally hang out and "make a living" while they eat and grow and hopefully survive.

There was, of course, much more to Blair's presentation than this, but I had never given much thought to how scientists figured things out, so this is the part I liked the best. The idea of riding in a boat on the open ocean for three days with your eyes glued to a red light on a little raft being pulled by a two-inch hatchling pretty well boggled my mind.

Our thanks to Blair, as always, for sharing his intellect, his humor, and his photos.


R.Powers said...

Interesting. I operated a seaturtle nest relocation program in the 80's when I was a National Park Ranger.
My "babies" should be returning to Florida beaches to lay their own eggs by now.

Florida Beach Basics said...

FC - Green turtles reach sexual maturity between 20-50 years. It's 20-30 for loggerheads. So depending on your program, yes indeed, you may be a grandfather.