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Young sea turtles don't just drift, they swim

"The results of our study have huge implications for better understanding early sea turtle survival and behavior," said study co-author Kate Mansfield.

By
Brooks Hays
A newly hatched sea turtle makes its way toward the water. Photo by beltsazar/Shutterstock
A newly hatched sea turtle makes its way toward the water. Photo by beltsazar/Shutterstock

MIAMI, April 10 (UPI) -- For a long time, scientists assumed the undersized fins of newly born sea turtles were no match for the waves and currents of the ocean. Drifting, it was presumed, was a young turtle's only method of transportation.

Because scientists didn't exactly know where turtles went or ended up, biologists came to refer to a sea turtle's adolescence as the "lost years." But new research proves young turtles aren't aimless drifters, but active swimmers.

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To better understand the young lives of sea turtles, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and at the University of Central Florida attached tiny satellite trackers to groups of young green and Kemp's ridley sea turtles. The nearly weightless solar-powered trackers remained attached to the group of turtles, aged 6 to 18 months, for two to three months. Alongside the turtles, researchers released buoys outfitted with similar trackers.

The scientists compared the paths of the turtles to the paths of the buoys and found the two datasets differed significantly, suggesting the young turtles swim against the current and take a more proactive role in dictating their journey toward adulthood.

In just the first few days of tracking, the turtles and buoys were an average of 125 miles apart. The divergent trajectories also showed the turtles to be much more deliberate, exhibiting a preference for specific directions over extended periods of time. Buoys, on the other hand, moved sporadically.

"What is exciting is that this is the first study to release drifters with small, wild-caught yearling or neonate sea turtles in order to directly test the 'passive drifter' hypothesis in these young turtles," study co-author Kate Mansfield, director of Central Florida's Marine Turtle Research Group, explained in a press release. "Our data show that one hypothesis doesn't, and shouldn't, fit all, and that even a small degree of swimming or active orientation can make a huge difference in the dispersal of these young animals."

Mansfield says the data could help scientists better understand where young turtles prefer to spend their early days, and thus aid wildlife managers and conservationist in protecting the habitat of young sea turtles.

"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," added Mansfield.

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

The new study was published this week in the journal Current Biology.

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