Endangered Hawksbill Turtles are Monogamous

Written by on February 5, 2013 in Marine Life, Sea Turtles
Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). Photo credit: Johan Chevalier, NOAA.

New research reveals the mating habits of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). This new insight will help conservationists understand more about the animal in order to better protect them.

Hawksbill sea turtle populations reached dangerously low numbers because they were hunted for their shells for over 100 years. Hunting was banned in 1996 when they were listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

By taking DNA samples from hawksbill turtles on Cousine Island in the Seychelles, researchers from University of East Anglia were able to determine surprising facts about their mating patterns. Cousine Island has had a turtle monitoring program for many years, as the island is an important nesting ground for hawksbill turtles.

“Understanding more about when and where they are mating is important because it will help conservationists target areas to focus their efforts on,” said lead researcher Dr. David Richardson, from UAE’s School of Biological Sciences. “It also lets us calculate how many different males contribute to the next generation of turtles, as well as giving an idea of how many adult males are out there, which we never see because they live out in the ocean.”

Their findings:

  • Females mate at the beginning of the season
  • Females can store sperm for up to 75 days for use later on
  • Hawksbill turtles are monogamous
  • They don’t “re-mate” later in the breeding season

“We now know that female turtles mate at the beginning of the season–probably before migrating to the nesting beaches. They then store sperm from that mating to use over the next couple of months when laying multiple nests,” explained Richardson. “Our research also shows that, unlike in many other species, the females normally mate with just one male, they rarely re-mate within a season and they do not seem to be selecting specific ‘better quality’ males to mate with.”

“We were surprised that they were so monogamous because actually…genetic monogamy is actually the exception in most animals, not the rule,” Richardson said.

“The good news is that each female is pairing up with a different male–which suggests that there are plenty of males out there. This may be why we still see high levels of genetic variation in the population, which is crucial for its long term survival. This endangered species does seem to be doing well in the Seychelles at least.”

Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). Photo credit: Tom Moore, NOAA.

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Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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