For years, scientists have wondered where young sea turtles went after hatching. Data gathered by satellites in orbit have finally allowed researchers to solve the mystery of the sea turtle's "lost years."
Hundreds of loggerhead sea turtles regularly nest in the shores of Florida's east coast. Once the turtle eggs hatch, the young turtles start crawling towards the sea. What happens after is a mystery that scientists have been trying to solve for decades. Once the turtles reach the ocean, they start swimming and disappear into the depths, in a move that is known as the "lost years."
"Before this study, most of the scientific information about the early life history of sea turtles was inferred through genetics studies, opportunistic sightings offshore, or laboratory-based studies," said University of Central Florida biologist Kate Mansfield. "With real observations of turtles in their natural environment, we are able to examine and reevaluate existing hypotheses about the turtles' early life history."
Mansfield and her team published their findings at the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Using data gathered by a satellite, the team was able to figure out where the turtles went during this enigmatic period of time. The data gathered by the team will be invaluable to efforts to conserve these endangered animals.
The turtles have been found spending a lot of time in large floating mats of sargassum seaweed. The floating habitats contain all the necessary elements for the sea turtles to survive and flourish.
"So there is food for the turtles there, and there is concealment, too," said Warren Porter, a zoologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who helped the team with conducting the study. "Once these little loggerheads get through the initial swimming frenzy, the first few hours of their life, they find a place and just sit there. They're very hard to see in the sargassum, as long as they're not moving."
Aside from providing nourishment and concealment, the sargassum mats also provided the turtles with much needed warmth.
"They were getting from the turtles' transmitters temperature measurements that were typically 4 to 6 degrees [Celsius] warmer than the sea surface temperatures," says Porter, an expert in the inputs and requirements of animal metabolisms.
Cold temperatures can be deadly for sea turtles. In fact, a recent brush with winter storms earlier this year caused the death of a number of sea turtles in the Florida Panhandle region.
"Typically, if you have a 10-degree increase in your body temperature, your metabolic rate runs twice as fast," Porter says. "If you've got about half that, like the turtles do, you're getting a 50 percent increase in your growth rate."
Now that scientists have a clearer idea regarding the areas that loggerhead turtles frequent, conservation efforts can be planned more thoroughly in the future. Moreover, researchers will be able to gather more accurate data about the populations and distributions of these endangered sea turtles.