Unraveling the Mystery of Sea Turtles’ “Lost Years”

Written by on April 16, 2015 in Marine Life, Sea Turtles

It was once commonly thought that young sea turtles passively drifted in ocean currents without really swimming, but now we know that’s not true. New research reveals that sea turtle ‘toddlers’ are very active swimmers.

Young green sea turtle. Photo credit: Mark Sullivan, NOAA.

Young green sea turtle. Photo credit: Mark Sullivan, NOAA.

For decades, researchers have tried to determine where sea turtles travel during the “lost years” – the time between hatching and when they return to coastal areas as adults two to ten years later. They are rarely observed during this time and it has been widely assumed that the young turtles simply drift along with ocean currents. Researchers from NOAA and University of Central Florida (UCF) now know that this isn’t true, bringing us one step closer to solving the mystery.

“All species of sea turtles are endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act; knowing their distribution is an essential part of protecting them,” Dr. Nathan Putman, lead author of this new study and sea turtle biologist with NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center, explained in a news release. “With a better understanding of swimming behavior in these yearlings we can make better predictions about where they go and what risks they might encounter.”

To study their movements, the researchers attached solar-powered tags to 24 green and 20 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle toddlers in the Gulf of Mexico and deployed passively-drifting surface buoys. The turtles were tracked by satellite for a maximum period of two to three months before the tags fell off. The researchers then compared sea turtle movement to the movement of the drifters.

They found that the turtles’ paths different significantly from the path of the drifters. The difference was as much as 125 miles in just the first few days.

Kemp’s ridley hatchling. Photo credit: Wendy Teas, SEFSC.

Kemp’s ridley hatchling. Photo credit: Wendy Teas, SEFSC.

“The results of our study have huge implications for better understanding early sea turtle survival and behavior, which may ultimately lead to new and innovative ways to further protect these imperiled animals,” explained Dr. Kate Mansfield, director of the UCF’s Marine Turtle Research Group.

“What is exciting is that this is the first study to release drifters with small, wild-caught yearling or neonate sea turtles in order to directly test the ‘passive drifter’ hypothesis in these young turtles. Our data show that one hypothesis doesn’t, and shouldn’t, fit all, and that even a small degree of swimming or active orientation can make a huge difference in the dispersal of these young animals.”

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Copyright © 2015 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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