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The Leatherback Project is Saving Sea Turtles

Stephen Brown

Starting in 2001, the LMC research team began to notice an exponential increase in nesting leatherbacks along their beach. Though seen throughout the world’s oceans, leatherback nesting was a rarity to the shores of South Florida, with little to none nesting in Florida prior to the 1960s. So together with a group of researchers from Duke University, LMC began the Leatherback Project to learn about the new recruits. “Very little was known about leatherbacks before we started this project,” says Martin, who attributes the work of the Leatherback Project to substantial gains in the understanding of the local population of these sea turtles, which she hopes can help in the conservation efforts. “Now, along with our research partner UCF in Melbourne, we are the only two programs in the state that actually studying nesting leatherbacks, and we have been able to answer a ton of questions. We now know about how big the population here is, their survival rate and basic biology. And we share this data on multiple levels, so this really has been huge.”

 LMC's Leatehrback Project - biologist Chris Johnson

Now, LMC’s beach is one of the most active leatherback nesting beaches in the state. During nesting season, researchers and biologists take to the shores at night, armed with cases of computer equipment, GPS and measuring devices, collecting data on the mysterious leatherbacks. This also includes tagging each leatherback with a flipper tag, installing a microchip and taking a biopsy in order to categorize the turtle’s DNA. “We just tagged our 500th individual leatherback earlier this May,” says Martin, quite the milestone for the 12-year-old Leatherback Project.

 Latherback hatchlings headed for water - Photo by Scott Benson - NOAA

On top of the information collected on the nesting turtles, each clutch of eggs is marked, recorded to the decimal with high fidelity GPS, data sets are recorded, including date (to help estimate hatching), sand compaction, temperature, nest proximity (to tideline and dune), among other datasets, each piece instrumental in learning more about leatherbacks, their physiology, life cycles and biology. Everything LMC records, from turtle crawls (false and fruitful), nests and hatchlings, to a slew of environmental data, all goes to the county and state, whose job it is to formulate this information into plans on policy management and environmental projects. On the turtle front, data gleaned from their nightly forays on the beach is first sent to the state, then on to the federal government, assimilating this data with projects from all over the eastern seaboard, developing larger population trends and the general status of the species as a whole. “This information is vital for these agencies writing endangered species acts and responsible policy management,” says Martin, but it still does not explain the huge increase of leatherbacks nesting in Florida.

 

“Conservation has been huge for the leatherbacks, but historically the population of nesting leatherbacks never did rise,” says Martin, who has a theory on this upswing in the nesting behemoths. “What we are likely seeing is a new population [of leatherbacks]. A couple of likely Caribbean individuals found their way north, ended up nesting on this beach and that has just kind of snowballed from there. We are now seeing new recruits every year from those females, and their females are producing new females, and so on, giving way to those big exponential increases.”

 

Leatherback closeup - Photo by Scott Benson - SWFSC NOAATo test this theory, Martin and her team have undertaken a genetic study (part of the Leatherback Project), sending DNA samples to the University of Georgia and Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, who in turn are creating a database of information that will not only determine where the root of this population stems from, but also who is related to whom, how many mother/daughter nesters are coming to the beach, and where the population rise is coming from. In essence, the LMC is creating a forest filled with family trees from this local leatherback population. “This is a really fun project, leatherbacks are kind of our pride and joy here,” says Martin. “We have one of the largest leatherback nesting beaches in the state, and we want to know if these are new individuals just reaching breeding age or if we are still recruiting individuals from other populations.”

 

The close work with these animals, the time dedicated walking the beaches night after night, year after year, observing the nesting turtles, sometimes up to nine times per season, has created some lasting connections between the turtles and researchers. “They all have names, they all have a story and we really do get attached,” says Martin. “Chris [LMC’s other lead biologist] and I can probably memorize the database we’re so addicted to it. We are here every night, we love it.”

 Leatherback rare daytime nesting - Leatherback Project - Loggerhead Marinelife Project

To speak to this connection LMC’s researchers have with these turtles, the story of Clover is the first to hit Martin’s tongue. Since 2003, Clover, a leatherback who has lost both back flippers to shark attack, has been visiting LMC’s beach regularly, showing strong site fidelity, a rarity in leatherbacks. Clover’s lack of flippers means she cannot dig an egg chamber, something she is unaware of: “She does not recognize her flippers are missing, so she goes through the motions like she is actually nesting,” says Martin. “So we will get behind her and dig a chamber while she’s moving.” Digging the egg chamber for Clover helps ensure her eggs have a chance to incubate, instead of being laid allover the beach. And since Martin and company can predict when Clover will return to nest, roughly every ten days, they are on the look out, hoping to ensure another successful nesting season for Clover.

 

The work LMC’s research team does with leatherbacks is just a small portion of their overall job, with loggerhead and green turtles taking up just as much, if not more of their time—their numbers are just that much bigger. Commutatively, LMC’s research work is just one cog in a larger machine, where collaboration between organizations, universities, state agencies and researchers is used to create a bigger, better picture of the inner working and interconnectivity of the sea and the life that dwells there. Using flagship species like the leatherback, loggerhead and green turtles is not an effort to save one group of species while letting another perish, but rather to save the habitat and ecosystem where all these species thrive. The fate of these ancient sea creatures, whose flipper-print on the world’s oceans and beaches stretches back some 110-million years, surviving the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event and outliving the dinosaurs, has been irrevocably affected by humans. With organizations like Loggerhead Marinelife Center creating public awareness, tending to the injured and conducting the research that will lead to a better understanding of the species, sea turtles just might have a chance of staving off another extinction event.

Leatherback hatchling making its way to sea

 


To learn more about the research Loggerhead Marinelife Center is conducting, visit the Juno Beach location. Explore the exhibition hall and turtle yard, and sign up for a turtle walk this June and July and experience one of the most ancient acts of nature left on this planet. Visit LMC’s website, marinelife.org, to register for a turtle walk this summer.

   To follow along with LMC’s Leatherback Project, visit the blog here and find out who’s nesting, what the numbers look like this year and how Florida’s leatherbacks are fairing.

 

Loggerhead Marinelife Center

14200 U.S. Hwy. 1

Juno Beach, FL 33408

561-627-8280 

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