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Study reveals US turtles’ movements

Loggerhead turtle: credit: Alan ReesLoggerhead turtle: credit: Alan ReesA study of the movements of an entire sub-population of marine turtle has been conducted for the first time. The study confirms that through satellite tracking we can closely observe the day-to-day lives of marine turtles, accurately predicting their migrations and helping direct conservation efforts.

Writing in the journal Diversity and Distributions, lead author, Dr Lucy Hawkes, now a Post-doctoral Research Officer at Bangor University’s School of Biological Sciences, describes the migrations of a population of loggerhead turtles in the US Atlantic Ocean over a decade (1998–2008). The findings reveal that, despite travelling thousands of miles every year, they rarely leave the waters of the USA or the continental shelf. This discovery could help the US direct conservation efforts where it is needed most.

Loggerhead turtle: credit Alan ReesLoggerhead turtle: credit Alan ReesMonitoring focused on adult females that nest along the coast from North Carolina to Georgia each summer and showed that they forage in shallow warm waters off most of the United States eastern seaboard. The study also revealed that the turtles which travel as far north to forage as New Jersey have to head south to avoid the cold winter there.

Dr Lucy Hawkes conducted the work with a research team at Exeter University as part of her PhD studies there. She said: “This is the first time, to our knowledge, that anyone has been able to say precisely where and when you would find an entire sub-population of marine turtles. This is incredibly useful for conservation as it tells us exactly where to put our efforts. We knew that satellite tracking was a valuable tool, but this study highlights how powerful it is – without it we would still be guessing where these beautiful but vulnerable creatures live.”

Loggerhead turtle: credit Alan ReesLoggerhead turtle: credit Alan ReesDr Brendan Godley who led the University of Exeter team has been using satellite tracking to monitor sea turtles since 1997.  He said: “By attaching small satellite tracking devices to turtles’ shells, we can accurately monitor their whereabouts. Working with biologists and conservation groups around the world we are starting to build a much clearer picture of the lives of marine turtles, including their migrations, breeding and feeding habits. These findings form a valuable resource for conservation groups, who are concerned with protecting turtles from threats posed by fishing, pollution and climate change.”

Publication date: 24 June 2011