Educational Series: Sea Turtles, Ancient Survivors of the Oceans, Could Soon be Extinct

With evolutionary origins stretching back to the age of the dinosaurs, sea turtles are one of the oldest groups of large animals alive today. They range throughout the world’s oceans, venturing onto land only to lay their eggs, and are among the most beautiful and majestic of marine creatures. However, as a group, they are also among the most endangered. To ensure sea turtles’ long evolutionary journey is not cut short by human greed and carelessness, it is essential that we understand them and the important role they play in their ecosystems.

The earliest known members of the sea turtle family are thought to have evolved about 120 million years ago, well into the time of the dinosaurs. Long before famous dinosaur species like Tyrannosaurus rex had appeared, sea turtles were plying the waters of prehistoric oceans much as they do today. Ancient sea turtles were among the very few groups of large vertebrates to survive the mass extinction that wiped out dinosaurs and so many other creatures at the end of the Cretaceous Period some 65 million years ago. Yet, the traits that allowed them to survive that disastrous event might not save them from the current extinction crisis caused by humans.

There are seven living sea turtle species: the loggerhead, leatherback, green, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley, hawksbill, and flatback turtles. All nest on beaches in tropical or subtropical regions, returning to very specific places again and again to lay their eggs. For example, one of the largest populations of green sea turtles make their nests at Tortuguero, Costa Rica year after year. Meanwhile, different loggerhead populations return to various sites along Florida’s coast or to distant places like Masirah Island off of the African country of Oman. Unfortunately, the reliance of sea turtles on such specific locations makes them vulnerable to any disturbance at those sites, and coastal ecosystems have long been targeted by people for development and industry. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that all seven sea turtles are listed as threatened or endangered–and historically, some species probably came ashore at other nesting sites that have long since been destroyed.

The sea turtle species that people in the U.S. are most likely to encounter is the loggerhead, females of which lay eggs about every 2-3 years, digging multiple nests over the course of late spring and summer. Each nest may contain over 120 eggs, which take about two months to hatch. Once they emerge, the baby sea turtles must make their way over the sand to the ocean–but many succumb first to seabirds and other predators. This is a natural part of the cycle of life in marine ecosystems, with young sea turtles providing an important source of food for animals higher up the food chain. The real threat to the species’ existence comes not from predators with whom they have evolved in tandem for millions of years–but from the disturbance of beach sites and other human actions.

Other sea turtles that nest on U.S. beaches–mostly along the coast of Florida–include the green and leatherback turtles. Leatherbacks are the largest members of the sea turtle family, reaching a length of five feet or more and a weight of up to 1,500 pounds (for comparison, loggerhead turtles can grow up to about 3.5 feet long). As their name suggests, leatherbacks also have a unique shell with a softer surface than that of other sea turtles. They migrate over huge distances, with some populations traveling across the Pacific Ocean from their nesting sites in Southeast Asia to feeding waters off the California coast.

Outside of the United States, important sea turtle nesting sites occur along the coasts of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, the islands and mainland of Southeast Asia, and other tropical regions. The only species that does not nest in the Western Hemisphere is the flatback sea turtle, which is restricted to Papua New Guinea and northern Australia. All sea turtles have a roughly similar life cycle, nesting on sandy beaches and escaping as hatchlings to the ocean, where the adults will spend almost their entire lives and play significant roles in marine environments.

Because all sea turtle species have seen a dramatic decline in numbers, many parts of the oceans have already lost the ecosystem benefits these ancient animals bring–but they remain highly important in those regions where they still thrive. Green sea turtles are one of the few animal species to feed on seagrass, dense beds of which line the shores of many coastal areas. By trimming back and removing seagrass, these herbivores stimulate new growth and prevent dead plant material from accumulating, thereby increasing ecosystem productivity. In fact, some areas where green sea turtles have been extirpated have seen seagrass die-offs as a result.

Similarly, hawksbill sea turtles play a vital role in another important ecosystem: coral reefs. Hawksbills feed on sponges that compete with corals for space, allowing the reef to grow and thrive. Leatherbacks, meanwhile, are an important predator of jellyfish in the open oceans, helping to keep jelly populations under control. The decline of leatherbacks, along with other factors, has led to a jellyfish population boom that is imperiling fish on which these stinging invertebrates feed. From coastal waters to the high seas, the disappearance of sea turtles leads to out-of-balance ecosystems and declines in other plant and animal species.

So, what are the main threats to sea turtles around the world? These large animals are at their most vulnerable as babies, and disturbance of their nesting habitat as well as harvesting of their eggs for human consumption poses an existential danger. In addition, lights from nearby urban areas or development projects can confuse baby sea turtles as they try to make their way to the ocean, leading them off course and away from the water. Protecting the habitat in and around beaches where turtles still nest is one of the most important things we can do to ensure their survival.

Once sea turtles make it to the ocean, they are still not safe from human threats, however. Many thousands of adult turtles die each year after being caught in gill nets, shrimp trawls, and other fishing gear. Although sea turtles are not the intended targets of the nets, they become tangled underwater and die slow, horrible deaths from drowning. The increased use of turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on shrimp trawls in countries like the U.S. and Mexico has helped reduce the casualties, contributing to a small population increase in the highly endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle in recent years.

Other dangers to sea turtles include plastic pollution–which poses an especial danger to leatherbacks, who eat plastic bags after mistaking them for jellyfish. Climate change also threatens to disrupt ocean currents in ways that will affect turtles and the animals and plants on which they feed. All of these problems must be addressed if sea turtles are to be saved from extinction. You can help by minimizing your use of single-use plastics, being a responsible beach tourist, and letting your elected representatives know you want to see action on climate change and the global plastics crisis. Only with enough people taking positive action can we ensure that sea turtles continue to swim in the seas, perhaps for another 100 million years or more into the future.

Photo credit: Wexor Tmg

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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