Noelle and Darwinia are two adult female leatherback turtles that nest in Gabon, Western Central Africa. The research team has fitted each turtle with a small satellite tracking device, which enables the scientists to monitor their precise movements and observe where and how deep they dive. The tracking began on 7 December 2009 and so far the turtles have travelled 800 miles between them.
Noelle and Darwinia are members of the world's largest nesting population of leatherback turtles, but their environment is threatened. The waters around Gabon are increasingly subject to industrial fishing and oil exploitation, particularly from nations outside West Africa, including countries in Europe.
Leatherbacks are of profound conservation concern around the world after populations in the Indo-Pacific crashed by more than 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists leatherback turtles as critically endangered globally, but detailed population assessments in much of the Atlantic, especially Africa, are lacking.
A team from the University of Exeter, the Government of Gabon and a network of NGO's in country, including the Wildlife Conservation Society and Seaturtle Org, is now undertaking research to learn where these creatures go. The researchers hope their findings will enable government agencies to protect key areas from the impacts of fishing, oil exploitation and pollution.
The project has been funded by Defra's Darwin Initiative, which draws on the wealth of biodiversity expertise within the UK to help protect and enhance biodiversity around the world.
Dr Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter is a member of the project team. He said: "We are building a high precision model of how these amazing creatures use the seas near Gabon to breed. Our aim is that this will help inform management of fisheries and mineral exploration as well as feeding into ambitious plans to widen the network of marine protected areas in Gabon. It is only by having detailed information on where these creatures go that we can try to protect them."
"Sea turtles are the ancient mariners of the world" said Dr Howard Rosenbaum, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program. "Understanding broader migration patterns and use of the nearshore habitat around their nesting beaches is a key component to their conservation."
The team hopes that the turtles' journeys will capture the public imagination over Christmas. Dr Witt continues: "It is exciting to see where these creatures travel and to delve into their lives in the vast South Atlantic Ocean. Over the Christmas period we will follow their movements with great interest with the hope that the information we gather can feed into truly useful approaches to help promote the protection of the species."
Their progress can now be viewed online:www.seaturtle.org/tracking.
About leatherback turtles
- The leatherback is the largest sea turtle, reaching up to nearly two metres (6.5 feet) in length and 540 kg (1190 pounds) in weight.
- Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback does not have a hard shell. Its shell is made-up of a mosaic of small bones covered by firm, rubbery skin with seven longitudinal ridges.
- Leatherbacks are the most widely spread marine turtles, and are found in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, particularly in tropical regions but also in cooler higher latitude regions around Canada and the UK.
- Leatherbacks are the deepest diving of all sea turtles. The deepest recorded dive is 1.2 km (3/4 mile), similar to that of sperm whales.
- As with other reptiles, the sex of leatherback turtles is determined by the temperature of eggs during incubation. With leatherbacks, temperatures above 29 degrees centigrade (84 degrees Fahrenheit) will result in female hatchlings.
- Leatherbacks are strong swimmers and tagged individuals have been known to cross ocean basins and are known to travel many thousands of kilometres in search of their jellyfish prey
Adapted from materials provided by University of Exeter, viaEurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.