In August 2020, the media outlet Wales On-line reported that a five-foot long marine turtle had surfaced beside a small fishing boat off the north coast and swum alongside it for an extended period before diving out of sight. The excited boat owner said that he had fished those waters for over 20 years, and never seen a turtle before. Was this an exceptional sighting? The fisherman was certainly lucky. Over the last century or so, the average number of leatherback turtles (the species observed) seen in British waters each year is around 15. However, this is bound to be a vast underestimate of the turtle numbers actually present in British waters. This is due to them being incredibly difficult to locate as they rarely emerge from the depths to breath, nor do they nest on British beaches; so the chances of actually spotting one in the huge expanses of our coastal waters are very slim.
Botterell et al. (2020) have published an analysis of marine turtle sightings, strandings (usually found dead washed up on shore) and captures (by-catch in fishing nets) since 1910. Of 1997 records, 84% are of leatherbacks; 12% of loggerheads, and 3% of Kemp’s ridleys. The remaining 13 records concern tiny numbers of three more species. Until 1980, records were small in number for all species, with substantial increases from the 1990s onwards. Mapping of the records shows that most are predominantly from the western side, including the English Channel, all around Ireland and north to the Orkneys and Shetlands. Leatherbacks and loggerheads have been recorded at all times of the year, with peaks in June-October (leatherbacks) and November-March (loggerheads). Kemp’s ridleys have only been seen from October-February. Measurements on body size, mostly from strandings and captures, suggest that most leatherbacks in British waters are adults, while loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys are juveniles.
Although they may seem like an exotic species, these data clearly show that we should regard leatherback turtles as normal members of the migratory fauna that inhabits our surrounding seas. Adult leatherbacks manage this by generating enough heat that their body temperature is above ambient, allowing them to remain active in the cold waters of the North Atlantic; even juveniles can raise their body temperature above cold water temperatures by activity and reduction of heat loss (Bostrom et al., 2010). For loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys, the majority of records in British waters are strandings of juveniles in winter: these are most likely animals cold-stunned as water temperature declines. What is unknown is the number which venture into our waters, but manage to travel south and survive.
Marine turtles display what are known as cosmopolitan ranges, meaning that they are near-ubiquitous in waters globally. This has led to their incorporation into indigenous cultures around the world, with their size and habits having led to mythological status in many places. In an ecological context, the extensive migrations they undertake between foraging and nesting grounds (which often span entire oceans) are important for connecting ecosystems globally. The three species commonly found in British waters have distinct breeding and foraging grounds, with much information recently derived from satellite tracking of tagged adult females following capture at nesting sites (Fossette et al., 2014). For example, Atlantic leatherbacks consist of two separate populations. South Atlantic turtles breed either along the coast of Brazil or of West Africa, especially Gabon. Foraging takes them across the ocean and southwards, but not into the North Atlantic. The North Atlantic population breeds on the beaches of southern Florida, the islands of the Caribbean and the Guianas. They forage east and north, as far as British waters, as we have seen. Adult females return to nesting beaches every 2-4 years and lay up to 7 clutches, each 60 – 110 eggs, over several months.
The males wait near the approaches to the beaches and attempt to mate with any females that turn up; however, they do not come onto land and instead spend their entire lives at sea. Leatherback females show moderately high nesting site fidelity, with all their nests in a season being laid on the same beach which they were born on or ones in close proximity. Hatchlings disperse into the sea and travel east towards open ocean to develop into juveniles. Kemp’s ridleys nest in the Caribbean, nearly all on one 16- mile Mexican beach; juveniles extend across the North Atlantic. Loggerheads are highly cosmopolitan with three distinct Atlantic populations. In the West Atlantic, they nest on beaches as far north as New Jersey and south to Parana in Brazil. Juveniles forage very widely. The Gulf Stream (also called the North Atlantic Gyre) was thought to be the primary determinant of juvenile distribution, as it carries developing individuals into east Atlantic waters. However, active dispersal has been recently documented in loggerhead, green and Kemp’s ridley turtles which suggests a more selective use of habitat than previously thought (Mansfield et al., 2014).
Sources of nutrition are a key determinant of marine turtle distribution. In other words, they go where the food is. The abundance of jellyfish in eastern Atlantic waters brings adult turtles, including loggerhead and Kemp ridley’s, but especially leatherbacks to UK and Irish coasts. As well as helping to predict the position of leatherbacks, the presence of jellyfish affects the depth at which the turtles swim. Jellyfish display a diurnal pattern of vertical migration, following their plankton prey up and down the water column. Plankton move to the water’s surface at night, when they are less visible to potential predators, and are closely followed by the jellyfish and, in turn, the turtles. Leatherbacks are so committed to pursuing their translucent prey that one intrepid individual was found swimming over 1000 metres underneath the surface during a foraging mission. This feat put leatherbacks into the top three diving animals on the planet alongside beaked whales and sperm whales. Their dedication to pursuing cnidarians was also shown by a 12,000 mile foraging journey from Indonesia to the US, which shows the determination present in their feeding habits.
It is these same feeding habits that have become a source of harm in recent times. Ingestion of marine litter, especially plastic bags, is a leading cause of turtle mortality. Particularly affected are leatherback turtles, due to their specialised diet of jellyfish which closely resemble partially degraded plastic bags hanging in the water column. One study analysed historical autopsy records spanning 123 years (1885-2007) and found plastic to be present in the digestive tracts of 34% of the dissected turtles (Mrosovsky et al., 2009). Plastic ingestion has a range of detrimental consequences, including reduced nutritional intake and asphyxiation.
There is a considerable worldwide effort to conserve marine turtle populations. One measure of this is the regularly updated IUCN Red List. Since the 1980s, there has been a large reduction in leatherback numbers which has led to a ‘vulnerable’ classification by the IUCN. However, there are subpopulations that are doing even worse, such as those of the northwest Atlantic subpopulation who were reclassified from Least Concern to Endangered in 2019. Another case was a subpopulation based in the South China Sea that produced 10,000 yearly nests on the beaches of Malaysia. However, from the 1960s the population dwindled to the point where only two nests were laid in 2008, both of which were infertile (WWF, on-line). This decrease in numbers was partly made worse by misled conservation efforts, which collected and artificially incubated eggs at excessive temperatures, scrambling the sex determination process. As in many other reptile species, sex is determined by the temperature of incubation of the eggs. This shows the need for in depth research when developing conservation measures to deal with anthropogenic threats.
There is a wide range of barriers to the recovery of turtle numbers, with pressures both natural and anthropogenic. Among the natural threats faced by marine turtles is the impact of climate change on temperature-dependent sex determination, which disrupts reproduction and has knock-on effects on population demographics and dynamics. Another prominent challenge to successful reproduction is the predation of eggs and juveniles, which make for easy pickings for a diverse array of coastal predators.
Conservation efforts and scientific surveys are often based around these issues, when the turtles are onshore and accessible for data collection. Studies focused on the reproductive stage of turtle life are very valuable to the implementation of management strategies and can provide a range of insights into their life histories. The Exploration Society operating out of the University of Glasgow has run many research projects along these lines, based in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago. These studies have contributed analyses of egg temperatures, tagging efforts to track distribution and last year uncovered a novel female behaviour for nest protection: after burying the eggs, females create a ‘decoy trail’ aimed at misleading predators over the location of the nest (Burns et al., 2020). All of these contributions are helpful to maintaining healthy populations of turtles, but there is still a large gap in the knowledge of turtle life out in the open ocean.
Marine turtles spend most of their lives navigating the oceans, across a massive geographic range and at various depths. This makes them pretty tough to track throughout their development from hatchling to mature adult, and even between nesting events. However, as we have seen, the use of satellite tracking has revealed much about adult migrations. In addition to this, the missing pieces of the puzzle can be cleared up with the help of sighting and stranding data collected from coastlines within their range, which can be acquired through citizen science projects and compiled into databases to map distributions at different stages of development. Stranded carcasses can also be inspected to gain an insight into the causes of death, and the larger scale threats to their survival. For example, carcasses with scars on their shells can show the impact of high densities of fishing vessels. The number of sightings can also be used as an indicator of population trends, as was shown by Botterell et al. (2020), summarised above. Tracking sightings and strandings off the British and Irish coasts, the study was able to attribute dips in numbers to major environmental events such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and link population increases to successful conservation programmes. This shows that despite the challenges facing this fascinating group of reptiles, we can make use of the full range of analysis tools available to more fully understand their life history; from hatching through juvenile to nesting adult. From this, effective conservation strategies can be developed to protect marine turtles throughout their cosmopolitan range.
Bostrom, B.L. et al. (2010). Behaviour and physiology: the thermal strategy of leatherback turtles. PLoS ONE 5(11), e13925.
Botterell, Z.R.L. et al. (2020). Long-term insights into marine turtle sightings, strandings and captures around the UK and Ireland (1910-2018). Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 100, 869-877.
Burns, T.J. et al. (2020). Buried treasure- marine turtles do not ‘disguise’ or ‘camouflage’ their nests but avoid them and create a decoy trail. Royal Society Open Science 7, 200327.
Fossette, S. et al. (2014). Pan-Atlantic analysis of the overlap of a highly migratory species, the leatherback turtle, with pelagic long-line fisheries. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281, 20133065.
Mrosovsky, N. et al. (2009) Leatherback turtles: The menace of plastic. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58, 287-289.
Mansfield, K.L. et al. (2014) First satellite tracks of neonate sea turtles redefine the ‘lost years’ oceanic niche. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281, 20133039.
WWF on-line. Search at https://www.wwf.org.my/?25625/Marine-Turtles-Malaysias-National-Heritage
Cameron Boyle, Roger Downie and Jack Rawlinson
Photos generously provided by Jack Rawlinson
University of Glasgow