Monday, March 19, 2012

Endangered species of the week– the loggerhead turtle

During our honeymoon, my husband and I went snorkeling in Hawaii.  What a great surprise it was for us when a large sea turtle came swimming by – so graceful in the water.  Ever since then, I’ve loved seeing sea turtles.  For me, one of the highlights of our annual vacation at Edisto Island in SC is seeing the loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta).  The state park beach that we visit is shared by humans and loggerheads, as well as many other species.  During the summer, female loggerheads come up on the beach at night to lay eggs.  Withinturtle hatchling at sunset roughly 60 days, the eggs hatch and the hatchling turtles make their way to the sea.  Because the loggerhead was listed in 1978 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, state park personnel help to release any additional hatchlings that don’t make it out of the nest.  That’s the day that is the highlight of my week!  Visitors to the park are allowed to follow the park personnel to the nests and watch (no touching allowed) as they dig out any eggs that didn’t hatch, any dead hatchlings, and any living hatchlings.  The state park personnel carefully log all information about the nests.  Then the park visitors can watch the hatchlings make their way to the sea!

The park staff instruct us to stand in two parallel lines from the nest to the ocean.  They release the little hatchlings, and we watch them scuttle towards freedom.  I’ve seen baby turtles countless times, making their way to the ocean, in nature films.  Cute as that is, nothing compares to watching them in person.  Those flippers that make it look like they’re flying through the water aren’t quite as graceful on land.  The hatchlings struggle to make their way across the sand, getting knocked on their backs by the waves, flipping back on their stomachs, and starting again toward the ocean.  We humans have to stand still to avoid accidentally touching or stepping on the hatchlings.  What an incredible sight to witness as the sun sets on Edisto beach!

A few facts about loggerhead turtles:
  • Loggerheads are found worldwide; on the Atlantic coast, the loggerheads’ range spans from Newfoundland to Argentina (on the U.S. east coast, loggerhead nests are mostly found in FL, SC, GA, and NC)
  • Loggerheads begin their lives on beaches, travel out to the deep ocean to begin maturing, spend several years in  near-coastal waters, and return to the beaches to lay eggs.  Their migration can cover over 7,500 miles!
  • Loggerheads don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 35 years old
  • Only 1 in every 10,000 hatched turtles mates and produces offspring
  • Females dig 3-5 nests per mating season, lay about 100 eggs per nest, and reproduce every 2-5 years after reaching sexual maturity
  • The average loggerhead grows from a 2 inch hatchling to a 250-pound adult!
  • Loggerheads eat bottom-dwelling invertebrates like crabs and crustaceans.  They also eat jellyfish at certain stages of development.
  • The biggest threats to loggerheads include capture in various types of fishing gear, as well as direct harvest and beach habitat loss.  The U.S. has worked with shrimp fishers to require turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on shrimp nets, and, since 1989, has prohibited import of shrimp harvested in a way that could adversely affect turtle populations.  More info from NOAA.
If you’re interested in learning more about loggerheads, check out this beautiful documentary:  Turtle, the incredible journey.Turtle The Incredible Journey Cover Art - Hannover House

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