Did you know that it is currently not possible to accurately age a living turtle? Yet successful conservation of marine turtles relies on having the best possible understanding of habitat use and complete life history. Therefore, age-at-size estimates are used to construct population structure and abundance models for management (Crouse et al. 1987, Heppell et al. 2003). Hamann et al. (2010) identified the need to “develop methods to accurately age individual turtles, determine a population’s (or species’) mean age-at-maturity, and define age-based demography” as one of the top 20 global research priorities for marine turtle conservation and management. This report also concluded that researchers must identify the “parameters [that] influence the biogeography of sea turtles in the oceanic realm” and resolve the “demography of turtles in the oceanic stage, including the duration of the oceanic juvenile stages”.
Determining age of turtles and life stage-duration through my research will address this priority to improve the population ecology and conservation of sea turtles. In addition, each distinct life stage of marine turtles experiences different types and intensities of threats. For example, a small juvenile turtle living out in the open ocean is exposed to threats (i.e. large industrial fishing fleets, natural oceanic predators, ghost-fishing nets & etc.) that are very different from the types of threats that a much large turtle will be faced with while living in a coastal area or lagoon (i.e. boat traffic, coastal pollution, smaller scale fishing efforts & etc.).
Assessing the variability of these impacts at each stage and habitat is difficult when stage duration is uncertain, making it a challenge to prioritize and implement protection measures to mitigate these impacts. By more accurately determining the duration of each life stage (i.e. how many years a turtle is in each stage) the full impact of particular sources of mortality on the overall population can be prioritized and more effectively managed.
My research will uses skeletochronology- a method to age dead turtles, together with other emerging techniques to generate age-based demographic parameters, including stage duration, for two populations of marine turtles in the Pacific. This research will contribute important information to marine turtle managers by directly addressing two of the top research priorities identified for marine turtle conservation.
Next blog entry: Techniques used to address these questions - learn more about how skeletochronology and stable isotope analysis can determine the age and past locations of sea turtles.
And if you have not already - please see the previous entry, "A call to help: Support Community Based Sea Turtle Conservation & UCSD Research" and watch the video to learn more about my research and how YOU can help out!
Some images in video obtained under NMFS Permit #1591
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