UAB researches the plight of giant leatherback turtles

By on March 13, 2013

The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest turtle and one of the largest reptiles in the world, growing up to seven feet and exceeding 2,000 pounds. Once predominant in every major ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic, the leatherback population has been declining all over the world. According to a recent study led by a team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, however, there has been a 78 percent decline in the turtle’s nests at their last major nesting site.

UAB research stands next to a giant leatherback turtle at a nesting site. UAB News

UAB research stands next to a giant leatherback turtle at a nesting site. UAB News

The leatherbacks are known as pelagic, open-ocean animals having the widest global distribution of any reptile species. Leatherback turtles have been known to take the longest migrations for feeding and breeding areas of any sea turtle. In addition, they are particularly known for their wide migratory range, having nesting grounds around the word. They are an incredibly interesting species of turtle, adapting to be able to withstand cold-water temperatures. These adaptations include large body size, counter-current blood flow, and a thick layer of fat.

It is difficult to imagine, such a resilient creature to be on the verge of extinction. Man-made factors contribute to the decline of the leatherback turtle on both nesting environments and during migration. Their numbers have been declining due to egg harvesting, coastal development, and low food availability.

A team from UAB led by Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., conducted a study to conclude that the largest marine turtle could soon be extinct. “If the decline continues, within 20 years it will be difficult if not impossible for the leatherback to avoid extinction,” says Wibbels. “That means the number of turtles would be so low that the species could not make a comeback.”

The team visited the turtle’s last major nesting site at Jamursba Medi Beach in Papua Barat, Indonesia. This site, which once accounting for 75 percent of the nesting for leatherbacks, has fallen dramatically to having less than 500 turtles nests annually. Being able to optimize hatching is a primary focus for the researchers, who want to see an increase in the number of hatchlings that make it into adulthood.

One way to stop such a steep decline in nesting is to relocate the nests to the warmest part of the beach in order to promote hatching. The team has also worked to educate locals about the leatherbacks to help decrease the number of harvested eggs.

If there is a growth in conservation efforts and beach management, the next twenty years could be a time of recuperation for the leatherbacks rather than extinction.

From Staff and UAB News

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