LifestyleDiscover the Surprising Habits of Leatherback Turtles Along the U.S. Coastline

Discover the Surprising Habits of Leatherback Turtles Along the U.S. Coastline

Insights into the Wayward Paths of Leatherback Sea Turtles

A recent research endeavor led by a group of marine experts at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Southeast Fisheries Science Center has unveiled groundbreaking discoveries shedding light on the migration and foraging behaviors of leatherback sea turtles along the Northwest Atlantic shelf.

Traditionally, it has been understood that leatherbacks typically journey from the South and Mid-Atlantic Bights during the warmer months to access feeding grounds near New England and Nova Scotia, Canada, where food resources are abundant. They then retreat back south as temperatures decrease in the winter. However, there has long been a lingering mystery surrounding the intermediate whereabouts of these remarkable creatures and their activities in transit.

The latest study, detailed in the Journal Frontiers in Marine Science, spanning several years, has provided unprecedented insights into how these turtles utilize the U.S. coastline, challenging previously held assumptions and underlining critical conservation ramifications.

Paradigm Shift in Sea Turtle Behavior

Mitchell Rider, a research scientist at the Rosenstiel School’s NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies and a primary author of the study, expressed, “Our discoveries represent a paradigm shift in comprehending the behaviors of leatherback turtles along the U.S. shores. By pinpointing key foraging spots and migration routes, our objective is to shape targeted conservation measures to secure the future of these majestic creatures.”

Exploring the Territories of Leatherbacks

Through the utilization of advanced satellite tags capable of capturing location, depth, and temperature data, the team tagged and tracked 52 leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) off the coasts of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Beaufort, North Carolina, spanning the years from 2017 to 2022. Tagging these formidable creatures, weighing several hundred pounds, proved to be a formidable task, but the researchers were successful in monitoring their movements and behaviors during their migrations.

The waters surrounding Cape Cod and Nantucket were found to harbor an abundance of jellyfish in late summer and early fall, which the leatherbacks seemed to leverage for sustenance. Many of the tagged leatherbacks around Nantucket Shoals lingered in the region for extended periods after tagging before embarking on their journey back south.

In the Mid-Atlantic Bight, the team inferred from their observations that there is a copious food supply, given the substantial number of leatherbacks exhibiting feeding behaviors year after year. Nonetheless, the absence of comprehensive research on prey distributions in this locale necessitates further exploration, with the potential deployment of camera tags for a clearer picture of the leatherbacks’ diet.

The South Atlantic Bight emerged as a vital region supporting various stages of the migration cycle, including nesting, post-nesting foraging, and overwintering. Although fewer leatherbacks were documented in this zone, those tracked showcased feeding-like conduct, particularly along the continental shelf ridge. Previous studies in the area have highlighted the occurrence of cannonball jellyfish blooms nearshore in the South Atlantic Bight during the spring season.

By unraveling the enigmatic paths of leatherback sea turtles and uncovering their foraging habits, this study paves the way for informed conservation strategies aimed at safeguarding the future of these extraordinary marine creatures.


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