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Nomads No More! Leatherback Turtles Stay Put Instead of Migrating

Dec 05, 2016 05:24 AM EST
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Leatherback sea turtles, the largest reptiles in the world, are famous for their nomadic ways and open-ocean migratory nature. But researchers from Cornell University have discovered a location along the Mozambique coast that houses what appears to be a permanent home for the leatherbacks.

In a study published in Nature's Scientific Reports, Steve Morreale, a senior research associate in the Department of Natural Resources, believes this behavior change could aid scientists address the leatherback sea turtle's endangered status.

"They seem to be staying there year-round. We've found these turtles, a supposed nomadic migrant, congregating in coastal waters," shared Morreale. "We've identified an area where leatherback turtles are clustered together. Having a long-term, resident population of densely congregated leatherback turtles, in coastal waters, that's really remarkable. It clarifies the ecology of this species, and as a result, we've broadened our scientific view."

Named for their softer, leather-like shell, leatherback sea turtles can tip the scales at around 1,500 pounds due to their voracious appetite for jellyfish. Leatherback sea turtles are recorded to consume up to hundreds of pounds of jellyfish. Though both species could be found throughout the world, Morreale and his team believe the group of leatherbacks they're studying might have stumbled on an abundant supply of jellyfish in the Mozambique Channel.

Electronically tagging and tracking the leatherbacks using satellite telemetry, Morreale and his team of researchers recorded a 6,000-mile journey into the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Half of the turtles, however, were tracked into the Mozambique Channel, which runs between Mozambique and Madagascar, off the southern African coast.

Skin samples and the leatherback's stable isotope signatures confirmed that not only were the turtles exhibiting coastal feeding behavior, but they could also be seeking seasonal refuge along continental shores and coastal waters.

Morreale believes the leatherback's new behavioral pattern "makes it a little easier to protect, regulate and to enforce protection -- especially if it is in one country like Mozambique -- than if they were spread throughout the world's oceans."

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