Tiny trackers reveal the secret lives of young sea turtles

Not so long ago, the lives of sea turtles were largely a mystery. From the time that hatchlings left the beaches where they were born to waddle into the ocean until females returned to lay their eggs, no one really knew where the turtles went or what they did.

Then researchers started attaching satellite trackers to young turtles. And that’s when scientists discovered that the turtles aren’t just passive ocean drifters; they actively swim at least some of the time.

Now scientists have used tracking technology to get some clues about where South Atlantic loggerhead turtles go. And it turns out that those turtles are traveling to some unexpected places.

Katherine Mansfield, a marine scientist and turtle biologist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and colleagues put 19 solar-powered satellite tags on young (less than a year old), lab-reared loggerhead sea turtles. The turtles were then let loose into the ocean off the coast of Brazil at various times during the hatching season, between November 2011 and April 2012.

The tags get applied to the turtles in several steps. Turtle shells are made of keratin, like your fingernails, and this flakes off and changes shape as a turtle grows. Mansfield’s team had figured out, thanks to a handy tip from a manicurist, that a base layer of manicure acrylic deals with the flaking. And then some strips of neoprene along with aquarium silicone attach the tag to the shell. With all that prep, the tag can stay on for months. The tags transmit while a turtle is at the water’s surface. A loss of the signal indicates that either the tag has fallen off and sunken into the water, “or something ate the turtle,” Mansfield says.

The trackers revealed that not all Brazilian loggerhead sea turtles stay in the South Atlantic. Turtles released in the early- to mid-hatching season stay in southern waters. But then the off-coast currents change direction, which brings later-season turtles north, across the equator. Their trajectories could take them as far as the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico or even farther north, which would explain genetic evidence of mixing between southern and northern loggerhead populations. And it may help to make the species, which is endangered, more resilient in the face of environmental and human threats, the researchers conclude December 6 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

But, Mansfield cautions, “these are just a handful of satellite tracks for a handful of turtles off the coast of Brazil.” She and other scientists “are just starting to build a story” about what happens to these turtles out in the ocean. “There’s still so much we don’t know,” she says.

Mansfield hopes the tracking data will help researchers figure out where the young turtles can be found out in the open ocean so scientists can catch, tag and track wild turtles. And there’s a need for even tinier tags that can be attached to newly hatched turtles to see exactly where they go and how many actually survive those first vulnerable weeks and months at sea. Eventually, Mansfield would like to have enough data to make comparisons between sea turtle species.

“The more we’re tracking, the more we’re studying them, we’re starting to realize [the turtles] behave differently than we’ve historically assumed,” Mansfield says.