It’s hatchling season on Juno Beach, which means our nights have gotten a little bit longer, and a whole lot cuter! We’ve had some of our earliest leatherback nests emerge, and many more yet to go. With hatchlings about this means we are now collecting data for the second half of our research project assessing the influence of maternal health on hatchling fitness. We will gather data from the hatchlings and pair that data to the corresponding mom we encountered laying the nest. Hatch and emergence success numbers gathered at nest inventory round out the dataset to help us determine the relationship between healthy moms and healthy hatchlings.
Measuring a newly emerged leatherback hatchling’s carapace length.
A two day old leatherback sea turtle hatchling from a day-time emergence nest. One of the most common questions we get on the beach when working with the nesting females is “How old is this turtle?” The infuriating answer? We don’t really know. Post-hatchling growth rates are unreliable estimates, and there are still large portions unknown about the basic biology of sea turtles.
After our quick sampling procedure the hatchlings are released. We love seeing the tiny turtles make their way across the sand and into the sea. This moment is made even cooler when considering if the hatchling is a male, this will be the last time in its life it will be on land. One of the great mysteries of sea turtle science is where hatchlings go after leaving dry land. Hatchlings are too small for current satellite tags, and the low survival rate further complicates tracking them. Juvenile and subadult life stages are rarely seen in leatherbacks, leaving quite a large blank spot in our knowledge of their life history. Also unconfirmed is how old leatherbacks are when they do reappear, at reproductive maturity. The migratory nature and pelagic tendencies make it impossible to follow an individual sea turtle through its life stages. Some researchers have developed projects collecting genetic material from every hatchling to leave the beach as a way of determining a nesting females age. But these projects based on genetic tracking have not been running long enough to find returning, now adult, hatchlings. Only time will tell!
Released leatherback hatchlings making their way to the water.
Leatherback hatchlings have much longer flippers proportional to body size than the adults or than hatchlings of other species. In addition to making them extra cute, this helps them right themselves if they get knocked belly up.
With some many basic sea turtle science questions left to answer, we’d better get back to work!
Disclaimer: All marine turtle images taken in Florida were obtained with the approval of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under conditions not harmful to this or other turtles. Images were acquired while conducting authorized research activities pursuant to FWC MTP-17-211.