Written by 2016 LMC College Ambassador Meg Teuber, Clemson University.
We all know that the health of the oceans plays an important role in keeping our lovable sea turtles healthy. But did you know that sea turtles also play an important part in the health of the ocean? It’s true – everything is connected in ocean ecosystems. Read on to learn about four ways sea turtles play a vital role in keeping our world oceans healthy.
Seagrass, where fish, shellfish and crustaceans live, needs to be “mowed” by sea turtles in order to grow properly. When green sea turtles regularly graze on seagrass, the blades gain more nutrients and can thrive, rather than become overgrown and end up decomposing. This in turn gives many animals a larger area in which to live and feed. As sea turtles continue to face threats, seagrass beds have had trouble growing properly, and as a result, begin to die. As sea turtles face more threats, the animals that live in or depend on seagrass for food (like manatees) will be affected.
Keeping Populations in Check
Did you know that sea turtles also help coral reefs thrive? Sea sponges battle corals for space in the reef as they are highly competitive organisms, and will often out-compete the corals. Although sea sponges’ physical and chemical traits prevent many marine animals from eating them, hawksbill sea turtles are one species that actually can eat them. This in turn regulates the sea sponge population and allows for more corals to grow. If sea turtles were to become extinct, coral reefs would slowly but surely be outnumbered by sea sponges. Just like hawksbills keep sponges in check, leatherback sea turtles prey on jellyfish to keep those populations in check. If leatherback sea turtles continue to face threats, jellyfish populations can quickly bloom and become a major problem for our ocean ecosystems.
Keeping our Beaches Healthy
Unhatched sea turtle eggs might get turtle-lovers down, but did you know they actually help with the health of our beaches? Dunes and beaches are made up of sand, which is a harder soil for plants to grow. However, thanks to unhatched turtle eggs, plants can get enough nutrients from the decomposing eggs to grow deeper roots in the sand dunes. These roots help hold the sand in place and protect the beach from eroding. When animals like shorebirds eat unhatched sea turtle eggs, those nutrients return to the earth through the birds’ feces, helping spread nutrients around the dunes. This helps protect our beaches from erosion. With less sea turtles, there are fewer nutrients to help dune plants thrive, allowing for more beach erosion.
Sea turtles also provide habitat for animals like barnacles or small crabs. These are called epibiota, and often attach to sea turtles’ shells due to their hard surface. Although it’s true that too many epibionts can be problematic for a lethargic or sick turtle, many healthy wild sea turtles will host at least one species of epibiota on their shell. As sea turtles travel through the sea, these epibiota often grow larger, live longer and can spread to new locations, adding to a wider dispersal of the animals.
As you might be able to see, without sea turtles, coastal and oceanic ecosystems would suffer; needing to beaches and adapt in order to continue regulating a variety of factors and stressors. Sea turtles help regulate these factors in a unique way; without them, there are a variety of problems that can occur. Protecting sea turtles protects the beach and ocean, and in the end, protects us!