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'Hitchikers' on sea turtles studied

  |   Nov. 8, 2011 at 4:26 PM
WASHINGTON, Nov. 8 (UPI) -- A recent U.S. survey found Pacific sea turtles comprise an entire ecosystem with an array of living "hitchhikers" on their skin and shells, researchers say.

Amanda Feuerstein of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is the co-author of a recent survey documenting the crustaceans, mollusks, algae and other marine organisms that make a home on the bodies of Olive Ridley and green sea turtles living in the Pacific.

"It is strange to think of a sea turtle as an ecosystem," Feuerstein said, "but they are … they have all of these other animals living on their skin and shells."

For three years Feuerstein and colleagues examined the shells, necks and flippers of female turtles that had come to Teopa Beach in Jalisco, Mexico, to nest, collecting and carefully documenting all the organisms -- known as epibionts -- they found.

Sixteen epibiont species were found, Feuerstein said, including crabs, a variety of barnacles, the remora or "shark sucker," and leeches.

"When we endanger animals like sea turtles many other groups of animals are affected," Feuerstein said. "Losing one species is more complicated and tragic" than people may realize.

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