One Hatchling at a Time

Sea turtle nesting season is winding down. It begins in early May and goes strong until the end of June or early July. Some turtles continue to lay eggs in August, occasionally September; the season varies slightly by species. Eggs incubate for 50-55 days so hatching begins in earnest mid-July. Turtles lay about 100 golf ball—size eggs in each nest. The same turtle can nest several times each year, the most recorded being eight. That’s a lot of eggs. Scientists estimate 1 in 1000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. And since not all eggs result in hatchlings, mama turtle is trying to increase her odds of success.

All sea turtle species are either threatened or endangered. (Read about a recent decision on the status of the loggerhead here.) Because human activity is the major cause of their decline, we are obligated to help increase their survival odds. This explains why hundreds of volunteers in Florida (and beyond) are on the beaches at dawn looking for telltale turtle signs.

Early in the season we look for adult tracks and nesting activity. Nests are located, marked, and where necessary, protected by cages or other devices to hinder coyotes, raccoons, and other animals that would love to make a tasty (and messy) meal out of the newly laid eggs. (You can learn how to identify the tracks yourself with this video from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Bonus: the narrator is Pineapple author Blair Witherington!)

Detailed nesting records are maintained for two conservation programs run by FWC. Throughout the incubation period records are kept of predator activity, beach erosion, and nest flooding during storms or unusually high tides. After 50 days volunteers keep a keen eye out for hatchling tracks. Three days after a hatch, when presumably all able hatchlings have departed the nest, each nest is excavated. Once again, records are kept—of hatched and unhatched eggs, live hatchlings still in the nest, or sadly, some that didn’t make it out.

Any volunteer will tell you there’s nothing quite like rescuing a live hatchling that couldn’t make it out of the nest. You release it with the hope that it will be the one in a thousand that makes it to adulthood!

You can check out the Sea Turtle Conservancy website to learn more about what volunteers are doing. You can even become a sea turtle fan on Facebook! The Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch site is also worth a visit for some awesome photos.

As I mentioned in my last post, nesting numbers are up this year—at least on our small part of the beach. We won’t know if that can be said for the entire state until FWC has collated the data. I did read that numbers seemed to be up in Georgia this year as well (see the second story in the hurricane link below for details). Time will tell if the tide is turning for these lovely creatures or if this is a blip on the radar. But for now, we’ll take it as good news.

Turtles of a different kind are getting help in our more northern climes. Check out folks helping out the diamondback terrapins (among others) in Massachusetts. The August 2010 archive has a great story on a rescued Kemp’s ridley. For all things turtle (and beyond!) this is a great website.

Here’s a quick synopsis of other news on the animal conservation front this month starting with the good news that birds can navigate through hurricanes.

  • A new species of dolphin was discovered off the coast of Australia.
  • Twelve new species of frogs were discovered in India.
  • It seems we have only itemized 1.2 million out of 8.7 million species currently on the planet.
  • A marine park in Mexico demonstrates that it is possible to reverse ecological damage. The fish numbers in this National Park have quadrupled over the last ten years. (There are also some sea turtle hatchlings in this video!)

Hope you have some good news to share from your area!

Bonnie is the author of Those Mischievous Monkeys (coming January 2011). She teaches people about conservation and sustainability—how to use less water, electricity, fuel, and other stuff—so that humans, animals (including monkeys!), trees, and plants can all share the planet and pass it along to the next generation. Originally from Canada, Bonnie now lives in Florida with her husband Jim and their two mischievous dogs, Cooper and Joie.