Sea turtle toddlers are powerful swimmers, according to a new study that contradicts traditional thought that the animals largely drifted with water currents.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the new finding on April 9.  Researchers tracked 20 Kemp's ridley wild-caught and 24 green sea turtles between the ages of eight and 18 months utilizing solar-powered tags. Investigators also placed surface buoys, comparing movements of the animals to the buoys as they drifted freely on the ocean currents. The baby reptiles were found to travel distances as far as 125 miles more than the mechanical devices. Researchers speculate this could be due to the animals swimming to preferred environments.

Sea turtles seem to disappear during their first years of life before appearing in coastal areas to forage for food and to mate. After hatching, the newborn reptiles crawl to the water and are dispersed by currents. Biologists have spent decades questioning where the young shelled reptiles spend their time during this period of their lives. Most researchers believed the animals floated with ocean currents during these "lost years," as the animals were thought not to possess the ability to swim strongly against the movement of the water.

"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," Kate Mansfield, director of the University of Central Florida's Marine Turtle Research Group, said.

Prior to this study, many biologists theorized that young sea turtles spent much of their formative period foraging for food among beds of Sargassum and other seaweed. This marine vegetation could supply the creatures with shelter as well as providing grounds where food may be found.

About two to three months after the tracking devices were attached to the baby turtles, the electronic devices fell off without harming the animals.

In the 2003 computer-animated film Finding Nemo, a young sea turtle named Squirt is seen swimming with little regard to the current. Until now, those scenes were thought to be contrary to what was known of the animals.

"All species of sea turtles are endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act; knowing their distribution is an essential part of protecting them. 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," said Nathan Putman, a sea turtle biologist with NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami.

Study of the "lost years" of baby sea turtles was published in the journal Current Biology.

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