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Concept: Sea turtle


Climate change affects species and ecosystems around the globe [1]. The impacts of rising temperature are particularly pertinent in species with temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD), where the sex of an individual is determined by incubation temperature during embryonic development [2]. In sea turtles, the proportion of female hatchlings increases with the incubation temperature. With average global temperature predicted to increase 2.6°C by 2100 [3], many sea turtle populations are in danger of high egg mortality and female-only offspring production. Unfortunately, determining the sex ratios of hatchlings at nesting beaches carries both logistical and ethical complications. However, sex ratio data obtained at foraging grounds provides information on the amalgamation of immature and adult turtles hatched from different nesting beaches over many years. Here, for the first time, we use genetic markers and a mixed-stock analysis (MSA), combined with sex determination through laparoscopy and endocrinology, to link male and female green turtles foraging in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to the nesting beach from which they hatched. Our results show a moderate female sex bias (65%-69% female) in turtles originating from the cooler southern GBR nesting beaches, while turtles originating from warmer northern GBR nesting beaches were extremely female-biased (99.1% of juvenile, 99.8% of subadult, and 86.8% of adult-sized turtles). Combining our results with temperature data show that the northern GBR green turtle rookeries have been producing primarily females for more than two decades and that the complete feminization of this population is possible in the near future.

Concepts: Male, Sex, Reptile, Great Barrier Reef, Sex ratio, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle


Few at-sea behavioural data exist for oceanic-stage neonate sea turtles, a life-stage commonly referred to as the sea turtle ‘lost years’. Historically, the long-term tracking of small, fast-growing organisms in the open ocean was logistically or technologically impossible. Here, we provide the first long-term satellite tracks of neonate sea turtles. Loggerheads (Caretta caretta) were remotely tracked in the Atlantic Ocean using small solar-powered satellite transmitters. We show that oceanic-stage turtles (i) rarely travel in Continental Shelf waters, (ii) frequently depart the currents associated with the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, (iii) travel quickly when in Gyre currents, and (iv) select sea surface habitats that are likely to provide a thermal benefit or refuge to young sea turtles, supporting growth, foraging and survival. Our satellite tracks help define Atlantic loggerhead nursery grounds and early loggerhead habitat use, allowing us to re-examine sea turtle ‘lost years’ paradigms.

Concepts: Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Ocean, Marine debris, Sea turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Sargasso Sea


Herbivory is widely accepted as a vital function on coral reefs. To date, the majority of studies examining herbivory in coral reef environments have focused on the roles of fishes and/or urchins, with relatively few studies considering the potential role of macroherbivores in reef processes. Here, we introduce evidence that highlights the potential role of marine turtles as herbivores on coral reefs. While conducting experimental habitat manipulations to assess the roles of herbivorous reef fishes we observed green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) showing responses that were remarkably similar to those of herbivorous fishes. Reducing the sediment load of the epilithic algal matrix on a coral reef resulted in a forty-fold increase in grazing by green turtles. Hawksbill turtles were also observed to browse transplanted thalli of the macroalga Sargassum swartzii in a coral reef environment. These responses not only show strong parallels to herbivorous reef fishes, but also highlight that marine turtles actively, and intentionally, remove algae from coral reefs. When considering the size and potential historical abundance of marine turtles we suggest that these potentially valuable herbivores may have been lost from many coral reefs before their true importance was understood.

Concepts: Algae, Coral, Coral reef, Herbivore, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle, Green turtle


A major interest has recently emerged in understanding how telomere shortening, mechanism triggering cell senescence, is linked to organism ageing and life history traits in wild species. However, the links between telomere length and key history traits such as reproductive performances have received little attention and remain unclear to date. The leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea is a long-lived species showing rapid growth at early stages of life, one of the highest reproductive outputs observed in vertebrates and a dichotomised reproductive pattern related to migrations lasting 2 or 3 years, supposedly associated with different environmental conditions. Here we tested the prediction of blood telomere shortening with age in this species and investigated the relationship between blood telomere length and reproductive performances in leatherback turtles nesting in French Guiana. We found that blood telomere length did not differ between hatchlings and adults. The absence of blood telomere shortening with age may be related to an early high telomerase activity. This telomere-restoring enzyme was formerly suggested to be involved in preventing early telomere attrition in early fast-growing and long-lived species, including squamate reptiles. We found that within one nesting cycle, adult females having performed shorter migrations prior to the considered nesting season had shorter blood telomeres and lower reproductive output. We propose that shorter blood telomeres may result from higher oxidative stress in individuals breeding more frequently (i.e., higher costs of reproduction) and/or restoring more quickly their body reserves in cooler feeding areas during preceding migration (i.e., higher foraging costs). This first study on telomeres in the giant leatherback turtle suggests that blood telomere length predicts not only survival chances, but also reproductive performances. Telomeres may therefore be a promising new tool to evaluate individual reproductive quality which could be useful in such species of conservation concern.

Concepts: Senescence, Organism, Turtle, Telomere, Costa Rica, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle


Natal dispersal of sea turtles is an energetically demanding activity that is fuelled primarily by aerobic metabolism. However, during intense exercise reptiles can use anaerobic metabolism to supplement their energy requirements. We assessed anaerobic metabolism in dispersing hatchling loggerhead and flatback turtles by measuring the concentrations of blood lactate during crawling and at different times during the first four hours of their frenzy swim. We also measured concentrations of blood glucose and corticosterone. Blood lactate (12.13 to 2.03 mmol/L), glucose (6.25 to 3.8 mmol/L) and corticosterone (8.13 to 2.01 ng/mL) concentrations decreased significantly over time in both loggerhead and flatback hatchlings and no significant differences were found between the species. These results indicate that anaerobic metabolism makes a significant contribution to the dispersal phase of hatchling sea turtles during the beach crawl and the first few hours of the frenzy swim.

Concepts: Metabolism, Adenosine triphosphate, Cellular respiration, Lactic acid, Glycolysis, Sea turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Anaerobic respiration


We document a tendency for published estimates of population size in sea turtles to be increasing rather than decreasing across the globe. To examine the population status of the seven species of sea turtle globally, we obtained 299 time series of annual nesting abundance with a total of 4417 annual estimates. The time series ranged in length from 6 to 47 years (mean, 16.2 years). When levels of abundance were summed within regional management units (RMUs) for each species, there were upward trends in 12 RMUs versus downward trends in 5 RMUs. This prevalence of more upward than downward trends was also evident in the individual time series, where we found 95 significant increases in abundance and 35 significant decreases. Adding to this encouraging news for sea turtle conservation, we show that even small sea turtle populations have the capacity to recover, that is, Allee effects appear unimportant. Positive trends in abundance are likely linked to the effective protection of eggs and nesting females, as well as reduced bycatch. However, conservation concerns remain, such as the decline in leatherback turtles in the Eastern and Western Pacific. Furthermore, we also show that, often, time series are too short to identify trends in abundance. Our findings highlight the importance of continued conservation and monitoring efforts that underpin this global conservation success story.

Concepts: Turtle, Reptile, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle, Green turtle, Kemp's Ridley, Protostegidae


Large oceanic migrants play important roles in ecosystems, yet many species are of conservation concern as a result of anthropogenic threats, of which incidental capture by fisheries is frequently identified. The last large populations of the leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, occur in the Atlantic Ocean, but interactions with industrial fisheries could jeopardize recent positive population trends, making bycatch mitigation a priority. Here, we perform the first pan-Atlantic analysis of spatio-temporal distribution of the leatherback turtle and ascertain overlap with longline fishing effort. Data suggest that the Atlantic probably consists of two regional management units: northern and southern (the latter including turtles breeding in South Africa). Although turtles and fisheries show highly diverse distributions, we highlight nine areas of high susceptibility to potential bycatch (four in the northern Atlantic and five in the southern/equatorial Atlantic) that are worthy of further targeted investigation and mitigation. These are reinforced by reports of leatherback bycatch at eight of these sites. International collaborative efforts are needed, especially from nations hosting regions where susceptibility to bycatch is likely to be high within their exclusive economic zone (northern Atlantic: Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, Spain, USA and Western Sahara; southern Atlantic: Angola, Brazil, Namibia and UK) and from nations fishing in these high-susceptibility areas, including those located in international waters.

Concepts: Africa, Atlantic Ocean, Portugal, Turtle, Brazil, Cape Verde, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle


The holotype (MHM-K2) of the Eocene cheloniine Tasbacka danica is arguably one of the best preserved juvenile fossil sea turtles on record. Notwithstanding compactional flattening, the specimen is virtually intact, comprising a fully articulated skeleton exposed in dorsal view. MHM-K2 also preserves, with great fidelity, soft tissue traces visible as a sharply delineated carbon film around the bones and marginal scutes along the edge of the carapace. Here we show that the extraordinary preservation of the type of T. danica goes beyond gross morphology to include ultrastructural details and labile molecular components of the once-living animal. Haemoglobin-derived compounds, eumelanic pigments and proteinaceous materials retaining the immunological characteristics of sauropsid-specific β-keratin and tropomyosin were detected in tissues containing remnant melanosomes and decayed keratin plates. The preserved organics represent condensed remains of the cornified epidermis and, likely also, deeper anatomical features, and provide direct chemical evidence that adaptive melanism - a biological means used by extant sea turtle hatchlings to elevate metabolic and growth rates - had evolved 54 million years ago.

Concepts: Evolution, Tissues, Turtle, Reptile, Anatomy, Keratin, Sea turtle, Sea turtles


Fisheries bycatch of marine animals has been linked to population declines of multiple species, including many sea turtles. Altering the visual cues associated with fishing gear may reduce sea turtle bycatch. We examined the effectiveness of illuminating gillnets with ultraviolet (UV) light-emitting diodes for reducing green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) interactions. We found that the mean sea turtle capture rate was reduced by 39.7% in UV-illuminated nets compared with nets without illumination. In collaboration with commercial fishermen, we tested UV net illumination in a bottom-set gillnet fishery in Baja California, Mexico. We did not find any difference in overall target fish catch rate or market value between net types. These findings suggest that UV net illumination may have applications in coastal and pelagic gillnet fisheries to reduce sea turtle bycatch.

Concepts: Reptile, Fishing, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle, Green turtle, Kemp's Ridley, Bycatch


Fisheries bycatch is a critical source of mortality for rapidly declining populations of leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea. We integrated use-intensity distributions for 135 satellite-tracked adult turtles with longline fishing effort to estimate predicted bycatch risk over space and time in the Pacific Ocean. Areas of predicted bycatch risk did not overlap for eastern and western Pacific nesting populations, warranting their consideration as distinct management units with respect to fisheries bycatch. For western Pacific nesting populations, we identified several areas of high risk in the north and central Pacific, but greatest risk was adjacent to primary nesting beaches in tropical seas of Indo-Pacific islands, largely confined to several exclusive economic zones under the jurisdiction of national authorities. For eastern Pacific nesting populations, we identified moderate risk associated with migrations to nesting beaches, but the greatest risk was in the South Pacific Gyre, a broad pelagic zone outside national waters where management is currently lacking and may prove difficult to implement. Efforts should focus on these predicted hotspots to develop more targeted management approaches to alleviate leatherback bycatch.

Concepts: New Zealand, Pacific Ocean, Australia, Ocean, Oceans, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle, Green turtle