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The Science Behind: A Florida Sea Turtle Study

5 minutes

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In the Southeast U.S., in particular Florida, is a hotspot for turtles and an exciting area to do research to learn more about sea turtle populations. Sea turtles in Florida are important because all species are covered by the Endangered Species Act. Some are listed as threatened and some as endangered species. In all the endangered species reviews of sea turtle species, it always came up that more in-water research was necessary. Most of what's known about sea turtle populations comes from nesting beaches. That information is very important and gives us a critical insight to the number of adult females, but it does not tell us anything about adult males or any of the juvenile or sub-adult age classes of sea turtles. That brings us here to central Florida. We're on the west Gulf Coast, working in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The reason we're here is we'd heard reports of large numbers of turtles here. We wanted to target an area to establish a long-term monitoring site to understand how sea turtles are utilizing the habitat in particular, as well as whether the populations are increasing, decreasing. So we initiated research here in 2014, and came out to do some pilot surveys, get on the water and see what we saw. We've now expanded that this year to do more formalized transects. We'll run a line in the vessel with a couple observers on the bow, looking to the front and each side, scanning the water. When we see a turtle, we'll call out its species, age class, and whether it's right in front of the vessel or how many meters off and an angle. We can use that information to calculate the relative abundance of turtles in the area. Some animals we will target to capture for satellite tracking. Greens are really difficult to capture. They're very fast, they make quick turns. It takes a few minutes following them to catch them. We're also targeting Kemp's ridley sea turtles. Kemp's ridleys are more docile in the water. They don't have the speed or endurance. We'll follow them for a bit. They'll usually settle down before we can capture them. Once onboard, we put them in shade so they don't overheat. And we measure their carapace, length, and width. We then put flipper tags on them to identify them. Finally, we'll put the satellite tag on. We set the satellite tag onto the epoxy, holding the turtle an hour and a half or two hours to have the epoxy set. Then we release it back into the water at the capture location. The data the satellite tags collect are GPS location. They also collect dive information, and they collect water temperature information. It's yielding some important information about how animals are utilizing this habitat. They stay here through the fall and then leave as the water temperatures drop. We tagged a green sea turtle last year, and that turtle returned this year to the same area. So it appears the animals here are residents and return year after year to this habitat. On this trip, we captured loggerhead sea turtles and green sea turtles. Those are a bit different. We take tissue samples of those animals. That's important to use for genetics, to understand what nesting beach assemblage those sea turtles originated from and what sea turtle populations are feeding in the waters off the west coast of Florida. So all the information that we're collecting from abundance, to genetics, to habitat use, it allows NOAA Fisheries to validate the management decisions that are being made and allows the agency to make sound conservation and management decisions for sea turtle populations. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

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Five species of sea turtles are found in Florida’s waters and all are listed as threatened or endangered. Biologists off the Gulf Coast of Florida conduct in-water research and monitoring of the turtle species. They are collecting data on population trends and habitat utilization. Part of "The Science Behind" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

The Science Behind
Episode 1
5 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
The Science Behind
Episode 2
5 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12

Viewer Comments

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    Melissa C. (Goldsboro, NC)
    August 22nd, 2018 at 08:06 AM

    Excellent review of the Florida Sea Turtle study.