Space Tracking Reveals Turtles Record Breaking Sea Float

Space Tracking Reveals Turtles Record Breaking Sea Float

A satellite tracking study of green turtles in the Indian Ocean has rewritten notebooks for long distance marine animal migration, showing that they can travel 4,000 kilometers without stopping to find food.

The turtles roam beyond the borders of big marine protected areas, raising questions about whether big marine parks, in isolation, provide enough security for migratory species.

The Chagos Archipelago protected region covers 640,000 square kilometres across the isolated group of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

My colleagues and I tracked the movements of the green turtle, a migratory species which breeds on the Chagos Islands. We attached small tags into the cubes of eight nesting turtles, and then tracked them by satellite for at least a year.

Seven of the eight monitored individuals visited distant foraging grounds outside the safe area, with a few travelling around 4000 kilometers to southern Africa. Only one of the turtles remained within the secure area following the breeding period had finished.

Exotic Travelers

Are marine parks around the task of protecting these wide roaming species R.D Kirkby & B.S Kirkby

Green turtles are found in subtropical and tropical waters, mainly from the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. They’re officially endangered, and are searched both legally and illegally for food. They also fall prey to fishing by-catch or ship collisions as they proceed through the sea.

Green turtles are a few of the most accomplished long-distance travellers on the planet. Several decades ago the migration of green turtles was documented between their isolated nesting beaches on Ascension Island, in the middle of the Atlantic, along with their feeding areas more than 2000 kilometers away on the Brazilian coast.

This was thought to be the greatest migration this species could undertake. The navigational feats of animals discovering distant targets from the huge ocean expanses have continued to perplex scientists.

Green turtles need extraordinary structure to finish these journeys. With this diet, green turtles can grow to 1.5 metres in length, weigh around 300 kilograms, and live for several decades.

However in their long migrations they do not feed, relying instead on stored fat reserves. Similar sized warm blooded mammals, like angels or seals, would be unable to complete such a trip without starving to death.

Whole Life Defense

Our work shows that networks of small protected areas will need to be developed together with bigger ones, therefore species which migrate long distances can stay in protected zones for as much time as possible. The Chagos Archipelago protected area surely has enormous conservation benefit.

In addition to protecting coral reefs and other important habitats and species, it is also going to protect turtles during key periods of the lives, during nesting and incubation.

However, international cooperation will be asked to develop the community of small protected areas across the Indian Ocean that will be needed to protect the turtles in other times of their lives.

The challenge will be to translate our results into a real world impact, in terms of both of keeping large marine parks, and of establishing successful systems of smaller protected areas to work together.

Turning scientific findings into real world conservation steps will help not just sea turtles, but also the many other endangered species that need our help also.

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