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Sea Stats - Sea Turtles

Sea Stats - Sea Turtles

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Sea turtles, who are among the oldest creatures on earth, have remained essentially unchanged for 110 million years; however, they face an uncertain future. The many threats to sea turtles include encroachment of coastal development on their nesting beaches and accidental drownings in fishing gear.

Of the seven species of sea turtles found worldwide, five nest in Florida. This brochure discusses these five species and includes information on the appearance and characteristics of each species. Threats to sea turtles is also discussed.

For additional information visit http://myfwc.com/research/
Sea turtles, who are among the oldest creatures on earth, have remained essentially unchanged for 110 million years; however, they face an uncertain future. The many threats to sea turtles include encroachment of coastal development on their nesting beaches and accidental drownings in fishing gear.

Of the seven species of sea turtles found worldwide, five nest in Florida. This brochure discusses these five species and includes information on the appearance and characteristics of each species. Threats to sea turtles is also discussed.

For additional information visit http://myfwc.com/research/

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ea turtles, who are among the oldestcreatures on earth, have remainedessentially unchanged for 110 millionyears; however, they face an uncertainfuture. The many threats to sea turtlesinclude encroachment of coastaldevelopment on their nesting beaches,encounters with pollutants and marinedebris, accidental drownings in fishinggear, and international trade in turtlemeat and products.Information about these ancient nomads of thedeep has, until recently, focused on nesting females andhatchlings because they are the easiest to find andstudy. The advent of new research techniques, such assatellite tracking technology, has allowed scientists topeer into other phases of their lives. Florida, a leaderin sea turtle research and conservation, is home to thenation’s only refuge designated specifically for seaturtles. On Florida’s east coast, the Archie Carr NationalWildlife Refuge, named after the pioneering researcherwhose work first called attention to the plight of the seaturtles, serves as a nursery for approximately one-quarter of all loggerhead turtle nests in the WesternHemisphere.
Sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles remarkably suitedto life in the sea. Their hydrodynamic shape, largesize, and powerful front flippers allow them to dive togreat depths and swim long distances. After their firstfrantic crawl from the nest to the ocean, male seaturtles never return to the shore, and females come backonly long enough to lay eggs.There are seven species of sea turtle: green turtle,hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley, Kemp’sridley, and flatback. All but the olive ridley and flatbackare found in Florida. Sea turtles have long, narrow,wing-like flippers in place of forelimbs and have shorter,webbed flippers as hind limbs. Unlike their terrestrialrelatives, they cannot retract their headsvery far into their shells. In most seaturtles, the top shell, or carapace, iscomposed of many bones covered withhorny scales or “scutes.” Turtles aretoothless but have powerful jaws tocrush, bite, and tear their food.The smallest of the sea turtles arethe ridleys, weighing 85 to 100 poundsas adults. Leatherbacks are behemothsthat can grow to 2,000 pounds. Most sea turtles growslowly and have life-spans of many decades. Althoughsea turtles can remain submerged for hours at a timewhile resting or sleeping, they typically surface severaltimes each hour to breathe.In summer, an ancient reproductive ritual begins.The female, who usually nests every two to three years,leaves the sea and crawls ashore to dig a nest in thesand. She uses her rear flippers to dig the nest hole,where she deposits about 100 eggs the size of ping-pongballs. When egg-laying is complete, the turtle coversthe eggs, camouflages the nest site, and returns to theocean. Nesting turtles may return to the beach severaltimes in a nesting season to repeat the process.As is true for some other reptiles, the temperatureof the sea turtle nest determines the sex of thehatchlings. Warmer temperatures produce morefemales, whereas cooler temperatures result in moremales. Consequently, conservationists prefer to leaveturtle eggs in their original location whenever possibleso that sex ratios are determined naturally.After incubating for about two months, the eggsbegin to hatch. A few days later, 2-inch hatchlingsemerge as a group. This mass exodus usually occurs
Nomads of the Deep
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionFish and Wildlife Research Institute
Female sea turtles often appear to be weeping as they nest; the main purpose of these tears is toremove salt from the turtle’s body.
at night. Under natural conditions, the hatchlings usethe bright, open view of the night sky over the waterto find their way to the sea. However, artificial lights onbeachfront buildings and roadways distract hatchlings,causing them to travel away from the ocean and towardthe brighter lights located inland. Because of this dan-ger, many beachfront communities in Florida haveadopted lighting ordinances requiring lights to be shutoff or shielded during the nesting and hatching season.
A Sea Turtle Sampler:Florida’s Five Species of Sea Turtles
Caretta caretta
The most common sea turtle in Florida, the loggerheadis named for its massive, block-like head. It is amongthe larger of the sea turtles; an adult weighs an averageof 275 pounds. Its carapace, which is about three feetlong, is reddish-brown on top and creamy yellowunderneath; it is very broad near the front of the turtleand tapers toward the rear. Each of its flippers has twoclaws. As is true for all sea turtles, the adult male hasa long tail, whereas the female’s tail is short; however,a juvenile’s sex cannot be determined externally.The powerful jaws of the loggerhead allow it toeasily crush the clams, crabs, and other armoredanimals it eats. A slow swimmer compared to other seaturtles, the loggerhead occasionally falls prey to sharks,and it is not uncommon to see an individual that ismissing flippers or chunks of its shell. However, theloggerhead compensates for its lack of speed withstamina; for example, a loggerhead that had beentagged at Melbourne Beach was captured off the coastof Cuba 11 days later.
Green Turtle
Chelonia mydas
Green turtles, named for their green body fat, werevalued by European settlers in the New World for theirmeat, hide, eggs, and “calipee” (the fat, attached to thelower shell, that formed the basis of the popular greenturtle soup). Merchants learned that the turtles couldbe kept alive by turning them on their backs in a shadedarea. This discovery made it possible to ship freshturtles to overseas markets. By 1878, 15,000 green tur-tles each year were shipped from Florida and theCaribbean to England. In Key West, formerly a majorprocessing center for the trade, the turtles were kept inwater-filled pens known as “kraals,” or corrals. Thesecorrals now serve a benign role as a tourist attraction.A more streamlined-looking turtle than the bulkyloggerhead, the green turtle weighs an average of 350pounds and has a small head for its body size. Itsoval-shaped upper shell averages 3.3 feet in length andis olive-brown with darker streaks running through it;its lower shell, called the plastron, is yellow.Green turtles are found during the day in shallowflats and seagrass meadows. Every evening, they returnto their usual sleeping quarters—scattered rock ledges,oyster bars, and coral reefs. Adult green turtles areunique among sea turtles in that they are largelyvegetarians, consuming principally seagrasses andalgae. Each year, from June through late September,approximately 100 to 1,000 green turtles nest onFlorida’s beaches.
Leatherback turtle
Dermochelys coriacea
The leatherback is a fascinating and unique animal,even among sea turtles. It is larger, dives deeper, travelsfarther, and tolerates colder waters than any other seaturtle. Most leatherbacks average 6 feet in length andweigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds, but the largestleatherback on record was nearly 10 feet long andweighed more than 2,000 pounds.The leatherback looks distinctively different fromother sea turtles. Instead of a shell covered with scutes,the leatherback is covered with a firm, leathery skin andhas seven ridges running lengthwise down its back. Theturtle is black with white, pink, and cobalt-blue
The contiguous beaches of Brevard, Indian River, St.Lucie, Martin, and Palm Beach counties are the most important loggerhead nursery areas in the WesternHemisphere, attracting more than 15,000 femaleloggerheads each May through August. Many of Florida’s green turtles have numerous warts ontheir bodies called fibropapillomas. Researchers believethese growths are caused by a virus but have not yet isolated a specific pathogen. The number of greenturtles with these tumors appears to be increasing.
highlights and has no claws on its flippers. It eats soft-bodied animals such as jellyfish, and its throat cavityand scissor-like jaws are lined with stiff spines that aidin swallowing this soft, slippery prey. A youngleatherback in captivity, with a plentiful food supply,can consume twice its weight in jellyfish daily.True denizens of the deep, leatherbacks are capableof descending more than 3,000 feet and of travelingmore than 3,000 miles from their nesting beaches.They are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, andIndian oceans, as far north as Alaska and Labrador.Researchers have found that leatherbacks are able toregulate their body temperature so that they can survivein cold waters. Leatherbacks are found in Florida’scoastal waters, and a small number (from 30 to 60 peryear) nest in the state.
Hawksbill turtle
Eretmochelys imbricata
The hawksbill is a small, agile turtle whose beautifulshell is its greatest liability. Although internationaltrade in hawksbill products has been banned in muchof the world, its shell is still used in some European andAsian countries to make jewelry, hair decorations, andother ornaments.The adult hawksbill weighs from 100 to 200 pounds.Its carapace is approximately 30 inches long and isshaded with black and brown markings on abackground of amber. The scales of this kaleidoscopicarmor overlap, and the rear of the carapace is serrated.Its body is oval-shaped; its head is narrow. Raptor-likejaws give the hawksbill its name. These jaws areperfectly adapted for collecting sponges, the hawksbill’spreferred food. Although sponges are composed oftiny glasslike needles, this potentially dangerous dietapparently causes the turtle no harm.Hawksbills, usually found in lagoons, reefs, bays,and estuaries of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans,are the most tropical of the sea turtles. They arefrequently spotted by divers off the Florida Keys, anda few nests are documented annually from the Keys toCanaveral National Seashore.
Kemp’s ridley
Lepidochelys kempi
The Kemp’s ridley is the rarest, most endangered seaturtle in the world. It has only one major nesting beach,an area called Rancho Nuevo on the Gulf coast ofMexico. The location of this nesting beach was amystery to scientists until the discovery of a 1947 filmshowing 40,000 Kemp’s ridleys crawling ashore inbroad daylight to lay eggs. Sadly, an “arribada” (fromthe Spanish word for arrival) of such awe-inspiringsplendor can now be seen only on film. Fewer than1,000 nesting females remain in the world.The Kemp’s ridley is small, weighing only 85 to 100pounds and measuring from 2 to 2.5 feet in carapacelength, but it has a tough and tenacious nature. Itsprincipal diet is crabs and other crustaceans.During the 1980s, many eggs were removed fromthe beach at Rancho Nuevo and incubated incontainers. The hatchlings that emerged from theseeggs were then raised for almost a year in a NationalMarine Fisheries Service facility in Galveston, Texas.When they were released, it was hoped that these“headstarted” turtles would have a better chance ofsurvival than they would have had as hatchlings.Unfortunately, there were many problems withthis program. When it was discovered that the sex ofturtle hatchlings was influenced by temperature, projectworkers realized that the method used to house theturtle eggs created an environment cooler than anatural nest on the beach, thus producing only maleturtles. They also discovered that after release, manyof the “headstarted” turtles did not behave like theirwild counterparts. Many scientists worried that these“headstarted” turtles would never become reproducingadults. Although two “headstarted” turtles are knownto have nested, headstarting is generally considered tobe an inappropriate conservation technique for marineturtles.
Threats to Sea Turtles
Sea turtles face many threats from humans. They arehunted for their meat and shells, their eggs are stolen,and their nesting beaches are often degraded bycondominiums, seawalls, and other structures. Hatch-lings are lured to their deaths by the artificial lights ondeveloped beaches; juveniles and adults may die afterconsuming discarded plastic bags, balloons, and othermarine debris. Turtles of all sizes and ages may be
Leatherback turtles can dive deeper than any other air-breathing animal except perhaps sperm whalesand elephant seals.

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