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Research

Sea Turtles Benefiting from Protected Areas—Study Offers First Look at Green Sea Turtle Habitat Use in the Dry Tortugas, Florida



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Nesting green sea turtles are benefiting from marine protected areas by using habitats found within their boundaries, according to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study that is the first to track the federally protected turtles in Dry Tortugas National Park, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) west of Key West, Florida.

Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) are listed as endangered in Florida and threatened throughout the rest of their range, and the habits of green sea turtles after their forays to nest on beaches in the southeastern United States have long remained a mystery. Until now, it was not clear whether the turtles made use of existing protected areas, and few details were available as to whether these areas are suitable for supporting the green sea turtle’s survival.

Green sea turtle fitted with a USGS satellite tag
Above: Green sea turtle fitted with a USGS satellite tag on Loggerhead Key, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Note: All marine turtle images taken in Florida were obtained with the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), FWC Marine Turtle Permit 176 issued to K.M. Hart, USGS, under conditions not harmful to this or other turtles. USGS photograph taken May 23, 2011, by Kaare Iverson. [larger version]

USGS researchers confirmed the turtles’ use of the protected areas by tracking nesting turtles with satellite tags and analyzing their movement patterns after they left beaches.

“Our goal was to better understand what types of habitats they used at sea and whether they were in fact putting these designated areas to use. This study not only shows managers that these designated protected areas are already being used by turtles, but provides insight into the types of habitats they use most,” said the study’s lead author, Kristen Hart, a research ecologist based at the USGS Southeast Ecological Science Center’s field office in Davie, Florida.

Researchers prepare to release a turtle A green sea turtle photographed by the ATRIS system
Above Left: USGS biologists (left to right) Jeff Beauchamp, Thomas Shelby, and Kristen Hart prepare to release a green sea turtle fitted with a satellite tag in the waters of Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Note: All marine turtle images taken in Florida were obtained with the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under conditions not harmful to this or other turtles. The activity depicted was conducted pursuant to National Marine Fisheries Service Endangered Species Permit No. 13307-04 (issued to K.M. Hart, USGS) and FWC Marine Turtle Permit No. 176 (issued to K.M. Hart, USGS). USGS photograph taken July 7, 2012, by Andrew Crowder. [larger version]

Above Right: A green sea turtle (about 80 centimeters [2.5 feet] long) is caught by the georeferenced USGS ATRIS (Along Track Reef Imaging System; http://ngom.usgs.gov/dsp/tech/deep_atris/) camera system while swimming over seagrass habitat at a depth of about 8 meters (25 feet) near Hospital Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. USGS photograph taken June 7, 2009; provided by Dave Zawada. [larger version]

Hart’s team made the discovery by fitting green sea turtle mothers with satellite tags after they came onto beaches within Dry Tortugas National Park to nest. After tracking their movements and analyzing their time at sea, the team located the areas that turtles used between their nesting events and determined where turtles traveled after the nesting season was over.

They found green sea turtles spending much of their time in protected sites within both Dry Tortugas National Park and the surrounding areas of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“We were thrilled to find that these turtles used some areas already under ‘protected’ status. The ultimate goal is to help managers understand where these endangered turtles are spending their time, both during the breeding period and then when they are at feeding areas. Given that worldwide declines in seagrasses—one of the most important habitats they rely on for food—has already been documented, this type of data is critical for managers,” said Hart.

Green sea turtle, sporting a USGS satellite tag, swims the waters of Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Above: Green sea turtle, sporting a USGS satellite tag, swims the waters of Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Note: All marine turtle images taken in Florida were obtained with the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under conditions not harmful to this or other turtles. The activity depicted was conducted pursuant to National Marine Fisheries Service Endangered Species Permit No. 13307-04 (issued to K.M. Hart, USGS) and FWC Marine Turtle Permit No. 176 (issued to K.M. Hart, USGS). USGS photograph taken July 7, 2012, by Andrew Crowder. [larger version]

To learn about the turtles’ habitat needs during the nesting season, the team collected more than 195,000 georeferenced seafloor images with the Along Track Reef Imaging System (ATRIS; http://soundwaves.usgs.gov/2010/08/research.html), an underwater camera system developed by the USGS. Researchers surveyed the areas frequented by turtles within Dry Tortugas National Park by photographing the seafloor in a series of parallel lines totaling 70 kilometers (more than 43 miles). Using a habitat map derived from those images, they found that the turtles most commonly used shallow seagrass beds and degraded coral reefs that have been overgrown by a mixed assemblage of other organisms, such as sea fans, sponges, and fire coral.

“Our synergistic approach of combining satellite telemetry data with an extensive habitat map proved to be an effective way to find out exactly what habitats these nesting turtles were using in the park,” said Dave Zawada, a research oceanographer at the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, and co-author of the study.

The Dry Tortugas’ population made shorter migrations than those typically seen among other green sea turtle populations around the world; this was only the second published study showing green sea turtles taking up residence at feeding grounds located quite near their breeding grounds.

“We hope to keep pushing the frontier of what is known about in-water sea turtle habitat use, as this type of scientific information is vital for understanding whether conservation measures are effective,” said Hart.

The results of the study were published in the May 2013 issue of the journal Biological Conservation. The full citation is: Hart, K.M., Zawada, D.G., Fujisaki, I., and Lidz, B.H., 2013, Habitat use of breeding green turtles Chelonia mydas tagged in Dry Tortugas National Park—Making use of local and regional MPAs: Biological Conservation, v. 161, p. 142–154, doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2013.03.019.

About Green Sea Turtles

Although their young feed on jellyfish and other invertebrates, adult green sea turtles feed on seagrasses and algae, making them the only herbivorous (vegetarian) species of sea turtle. In fact, their name comes from their greenish-colored fat, believed to result from their diet.

Green sea turtles are found around the world in three main types of habitat: nesting beaches, open ocean, and shallow water, such as lagoons and shoals where they feed on marine grasses and algae found on the seafloor (“benthic” habitat). Within the United States, green sea turtles are found from North Carolina to Florida, Hawai‘i, and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Their breeding populations in Florida are listed as endangered; all other populations are listed as threatened.

The nesting season for green sea turtles lasts throughout the summer but is most concentrated in June and July. During nesting season, females nest at roughly 2-week intervals, producing an average of five nests or “clutches.” Each clutch contains an average of 135 eggs, which will hatch after incubating for about 2 months.


Related Sound Waves Stories
Dry Tortugas National Park: a Unique Setting for USGS Marine Research
Aug. / Sept. 2010
Sea Turtles in the Dry Tortugas: Tracking Movements of Endangered Species in Florida's Coral-Reef Habitats
December 2008
Sea-Floor Survey Off Key Largo, Florida, Using Along-Track Reef-Imaging System (ATRIS)
March 2008

Related Websites
Deep ATRIS - An Auto-adjusting, Towed, Digital Imaging System
USGS

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Research
cover story:
BOBSled Underwater Camera Records HD Video of Seafloor

Study Shows Sea Turtles Benefit from Protected Areas

Fieldwork
Seafloor Sampling off Massachusetts

Life in the Abyss

Coral Gardens: Forests of the Deep - Mission Log

Meetings
Spring 2013 Monterey Bay Marine GIS User Group Meeting

Awards
U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Project Team Receives Superior Honor Awards

USGS a Big Winner in National Association of Government Communicators Awards

Publications May / June 2013 Publications

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