Why Save Sea Turtles?


By Laura Todd

Photo: Comber the green sea
turtle being released into the Pacific Ocean off southern California, October
23, 2016, Photo credit: SeaWorld San Diego

I’ve been asked, “What
difference does one turtle make?”  

It is absolutely true that
one turtle, in comparison to the entire world’s population, represents a small contribution
to that population.  However, rehabilitating
that one individual from an endangered or threatened population can ensure
decades of offspring over a lifespan of up to 80 years.

Every turtle that strands
and is treated, successfully or not, teaches us something.  The first lesson they teach us is how to
successfully respond, which is vital to know if we ever have a spill or
catastrophe that causes mass turtle strandings.
And erratic ocean conditions like algal blooms, El Niño, oxygen
depletion, and warming sea surface temperatures are resulting in greater
numbers of stranded turtles.

Additionally, many of the
turtles we have treated are juveniles or very young adults.  This age group is crucial as the future
breeding population, and very little is known about them.  The period between hatching and return to the
nesting area is known as the “lost years” because when the turtles leave their
nests, they are too tiny to track with conventional satellite equipment, and they
are seldom encountered until the females return to nest 20 or more years later
– unless we find them stranded.  And
males are even more mysterious since they spend their lives at sea.

And each stranded turtle we
successfully release has a story with important lessons.  A green sea turtle named Comber, stranded in
Canada in 2015 and was released in November 2016, the first ever successful sea
turtle rescue from Canada.  With a
satellite tag attached, Comber was released to the sea southwest of San Diego.
He shocked us by heading straight back to Canada!  When his transmitter finally failed on March
30, 2017, he was in British Columbia a few miles north of where he stranded,
showing signs of normal turtle activity.  
He was able to swim over 1,500 miles in frigid waters in the dead of
winter, and based on another turtle released in 2011, it may be more common
than we know. Two turtles can tell a story, but we need more information to
develop a pattern.

Photo: Tucker in the
hyperbaric oxygen chamber at the Virginia Mason Center for Hyperbaric Medicine
with a team of experts that included Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna
Lahner and Jim Holm, MD, medical director of hyperbaric medicine. Photo credit:
Seattle Aquarium

Hopefully, the pattern will
fill in a bit more brightly this fall. Three sea turtles, stranded in December
2014 and 2015, are returning to the Pacific Ocean on September 11!  All three will be equipped with satellite
transmitters to map their travels.  And
all three have already provided us with valuable information, teaching us lessons
in treatment of cold-stranding and buoyancy.

Keep reading


How do turtles communicate? —

RogueSquid says: “Recently two studies published in the Chelonian Conservation and Biology and Herpetologica found that two turtles species are capable of vocalizing when they reproduce. The two species can also communicate during some social interactions. According to a herpetologist and turtle conservationist with the Brazilian Institutes for Amazon Research and Director of the Center for Amazon Turtle Conservation, claims that no one studied turtle communication before because old literature. Claims from the 1950s stated that turtles were deaf and did not vocalize, so everyone believed it and failed to investigate it.”

(via Wildlife and Habitat Conservation News: Turtle Talk: Exactly how do turtles communicate?)


Marine airgun noise could cause turtle trauma

Scientists from the University of Exeter are warning of the risks that seismic surveys may pose to sea turtles. Widely used in marine oil and gas exploration, seismic surveys use airguns to produce sound waves that penetrate the sea floor to map oil and gas reserves.

The review, published in the journal Biological Conservation, found that compared to marine mammals and fish, turtles are largely ignored in terms of research attention and are often omitted from policy guidelines designed to mitigate the environmental risks of seismic surveys.

Possible ramifications for turtles include behavioural changes and exclusion from critical habitats as well as potential auditory damage, as turtle hearing ranges overlap with airgun frequencies. In addition, turtles are known to become entangled in gear towed behind the survey vessel, which can lead to drowning.

Lead author Sarah Nelms from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall said: “By talking to oil and gas companies, seismic operators and on-board Marine Mammal Observers, as well as academics and conservationists, we had a great opportunity to gather a broad spectrum of opinions, not just one side of the story. This allowed us to access information that was not available in the published literature.”

The researchers also examined policy guidelines for the mitigation of risk to marine life in seismic surveys and assessed peer-reviewed literature on the topic.

“Our study reveals the potential for seismic surveys to cause behavioural changes and physical harm to turtles and we are calling for more research to urgently fill the crucial knowledge gaps that were highlighted during our review,” said Ms Nelms.

During a survey, specialised ships simultaneously fire multiple airguns while towing multiple hydrophone streamers, which can cover an area up to 700m wide and 12km long, to capture the returning sound waves. Researchers involved in the study received reports of turtles becoming entangled in the trailing tail buoys and developed a turtle guard which has been voluntarily installed by some operators. Further research could help make such preventative measures mandatory in the future.

Senior author Professor Brendan Godley, also from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, said: “Seismic surveys are occurring in the waters of at least 50 countries in which marine turtles are present and they are becoming increasingly widespread. Given the conservation status of turtles, we feel that it is important and timely to assess the level of threat posed by this global activity and highlight knowledge gaps to direct future research efforts.”

“There is a great deal that could be done proactively to help improve the status quo. We are standing by to work with seismic companies and others in the oil and gas sector to this end.”

Read more here.

Provided by the University of Exeter




I have a newfound dream of keeping a pet tortoise, but there’s so much research to do before that’s possible. This is the life I lead.

Yes! Do lots and lots of research and prep.. getting the set up right is work but completely worth it when you get a sly side eye from your little shell friend <3

Thanks for the encouragement, tort-time! I’m nowhere near done researching, and there’s so many different facets of information regarding general tortoise care before even considering specific species that it’s a bit overwhelming for a prospective first-timer like myself.

Makes me so happy to read this <3 you are gonna be the best shell human! Theres SO much to take in at first. I definitely feel you on how overwhelming it can be. When I got Ms. Zoya Pants, I was blown away by the amount of bad info out there and embarked on a bit of a crusade for quality information… its ongoing really. I have no doubt you’ll end up with a perfect match and many happy times will follow.

Depending on the level of depth you’re looking for, I highly recommend a book “Health care & Rehabilitation of Turtles and Tortoises” by Amanda Ebenhack. It’s a pretty intense book but has a ton of info from husbandry and diets to potential health issues and their treatment. It’s good to have around, IMHO, when questions come up and just in general. 

Good Luck! 

acolderindigo reblogged your video post:

Does their toy enrichment typically involve food?…

I wondered if food was involved in any way. According to the article, the choices were all things they do on a regular basis but did not include food (though I’d assume a handler does bring the food daily so that right there makes it questionable.) That said It was indicated in the article that they were fed as they normally do and the sprinkler and toy ‘enrichment’ is conducted weekly as are neck rubs.

These Galapagos Tortoises seem to enjoy human contact most, or maybe there’s an itch just.. right there.. no a little …to the left… these short legs are useless for this sorta thing!
The University of Florida, Psychology department, has completed some fascinating research examining the enrichment preferences of captive animals. In this case, do Galapagos tortoises prefer interacting with ‘play’ objects, the sprinkler, or getting a neck rub from one of their keepers?  The hope being, any understanding of their preferences would assist keepers in providing them with the best possible environment.
For the three Galapagos tortoises studied? Their choice was human interaction. “Not only did they prefer keeper interaction overall compared to the traditional forms of enrichment,” Mehrkam said, “but the individual tortoises had preferences for the kind of interaction they wanted. Larry and Curly like having their necks rubbed. Moe liked the shell scrubbing.”  (UFL.edu
Why did they choose human interaction?? Well, that calls for further research… after curly gets his neck rub of course. 

Incredible new research records vocalization of River Turtles & finds that adults ‘talk’ to each other and to their hatchlings! 

Read more below and click through to hear the river turtle recordings! 

(Source BBC News

Scientists in Brazil have managed to eavesdrop on underwater “turtle talk”.

Their recordings have revealed that, in the nesting season, river turtles appear to exchange information vocally – communicating with each other using at least six different sounds.

This included chatter recorded between females and hatchlings.

The researchers say this is the first record of parental care in turtles. It shows they could be vulnerable to the effects of noise pollution, they warn.

The results, published recently in the Journal Herpetologica, include recordings of the strange turtle talk. They reveal that the animals may lead much more socially complex lives than previously thought.

The team, including researchers from theWildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the National Institute of Amazonian Research carried out their study on the Rio Trombetas in the Amazon between 2009 and 2011.

They used microphones and underwater hydrophones to record more than 250 individual sounds from the animals.

The scientists then analysed these vocalisations and divided them into six different types, correlating each category with a specific behaviour.

Dr Camila Ferrara, of the WCS Brazil programme, told BBC News: “The [exact] meanings aren’t clear… but we think they’re exchanging information.

“We think sound helps the animals to synchronise their activities in the nesting season,” she said.

The noises the animals made were subtly different depending on their behaviour. For example, there was a specific sound when adults were migrating through the river, and another when they gathered in front of nesting beaches. There was a different sound again made by adults when they were waiting on the beaches for the arrival of their hatchlings. 

Dr Ferrara believes that the females make these specific sounds to guide hatchlings to and through the water.

“The females wait for the hatchlings,” she told BBC News. “And without these sounds, they might not know where to go.”

Since many species of turtles live for decades, the researchers also think that young turtles might learn these vocal communication skills from older individuals.

Tortoises learn to use touchscreens & researchers gain insight into how their minds work (pet rock my shell… ) 

The video shows one of the tortoises in action. Read more below or the full article at LiveScience 

(Via LiveScience ) 

Red-footed tortoises are often household pets. If you own one, you may have to share your tablet computer or smartphone with it from now on. With the right training, they can operate touch-screen interfaces. Researchers led by Dr. Anna Wilkinson of the University of Lincoln (UK) created a touch-screen activity that red-footed tortoises were able to understand. 

The tortoises not only mastered the task in exchange for strawberries, but the animals also transferred their knowledge to a real-life setting. “Generally people see reptiles as inert, stupid and unresponsive,” said Anna Wilkinson, one of the study’s lead researchers and a senior lecturer of animal cognition at the University of Lincoln in England. “I would like people to see that there is something much more complex going on.”

The tortoises, which are native to Central and South America, don’t have a hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning, memory and spatial navigation, Wilkinson said. Instead, red-footed tortoises may rely on an area of the brain called the medial cortex, an area associated with complex cognitive behavior and decision making in people. To understand how tortoises learn, the researchers tested how the reptiles relied on cues to get around.

Wilkinson’s colleagues at the University of Vienna gave the tortoises treats when the reptiles looked at, approached and then pecked on the screen.

The four red-footed tortoises in the study learned how to use touch screens fairly quickly, Wilkinson said.

“It’s comparable to the speed with which the pigeons and rats do it,” Wilkinson told Live Science. “I’ve trained dogs to use a touch screen and I’d say the tortoises are faster.”

Cold-blooded cognition: Tortoises quick on the uptake

I am SO EXCITED about this new research. So I posted a while back about the ig nobel prize and the tortoises that don’t yawn together. Well, it may have won a prize but the article on the winners left out a huge block of research that went along with that “contagious yawning hypothesis”. Thats right, huge strides were made in the understanding of cognition in tortoises and turtles and all I read about was tortoises and yawning! 

Its really not surprising that research indicates higher levels of intelligence and social behavior than academics ever thought before. All of us tort owners can vouch for the fact that our shelled friends have more than a clue about their surroundings. That ‘side eye’ they give us when we bug them is no joke. Here, however, we have academic research proving that these reptiles (previously said to have little more than instinctual based behavior) express complex cognitive skills “surprisingly advanced levels of social learning”. How awesome is that? 

The article discusses the fact that research on animal cognition has really stayed away from reptiles, more specifically turtles and torts, and stuck more with mammals and birds. There has been work done, but its been few and far between. Large lizards have been researched quite a bit, and have shown attachment as well as social behavior within species and with humans and other animals. About a year ago I posted an article on reptile play behavior that was based on interactions with a large sea turtle. It showed that, despite previous assumptions, reptiles enjoy activities purely for the interaction and “play” and not based on survival instincts alone as previously thought. Looks like we can now move forward from there! 

The highlights of the article include: 

  • The [researchers] set up a tortoise-sized test maze similar to the eight-armed radial structure used for rats and mice, then put Moses through his paces. As with the rodents he was placed in the centre of the maze and given eight chances to retrieve food from the arms – each of which had a morsel at its end. Moses quickly learned to find his way around so that he didn’t revisit arms where he had already eaten the food. Like the rodents, he seemed to create a “cognitive map” from the objects he could see in the world beyond the maze. However, when Wilkinson and Hall obscured these landmarks, Moses took up a different strategy – he systematically visited the arm next to the one he had just left, allowing him to retrieve all eight food scraps (Journal of Comparative Psychology, vol 121, p 412). This flexibility of behaviour has never been seen in mammals, which seek new landmarks when old ones are removed. Clever Moses.
  • One skill Wilkinson and Huber were keen to explore was gaze-following. The ability to look where another individual is looking is important because it can alert you to potential predators, or food. It is also a complex behaviour, which requires understanding that another animal’s gaze can convey useful information, working out where it is looking and turning to focus on the same spot. Gaze-following has long been thought of as a talent exclusive to primates, but recently it has been found in goats and a few birds. It turns out that red-footed tortoises can do it too.
  • The researchers found tortoises can learn to find hidden food by watching another tortoise walk around a wall to collect a treat (Biology Letters, vol 6, p 61). This indicates that tortoises are capable of social learning, a trait thought to have evolved as a special cognitive adaptation in social animals. The discovery raises the possibility that social learning may simply be an extension of general learning capabilities rather than a specialist skill.

So read the article in the new scientist here. I promise you won’t be disappointed. For those of you extra nerdy like me, you can read one of the full journal articles by the research team here.