Good News for Green Turtles
A rescued green turtle at Mote Aquarium shows her white skin and serrated jaw, which helps the turtle chew their primary food source, seagrasses and algae.
Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) are no longer listed as endangered in Florida, although they remain threatened. All over Florida, a record number of green sea turtles nested this season. Mote’s Sea Turtle Program reported 77 green turtle nests, an increase of 1,183 percent compared with last year. Coastal Wildlife Club reported 222 green turtle nests through August 25, as compared to 33 nests last year. According to Brenda Bossman, who oversees Don Padro Island turtle patrol, “The most greens we've had was 26 in 2015. This year to date we have 98. Needless to say, it's a surprising increase in a 2-mile area! When looking at the green turtle hatchlings, you see high energy and strength in these tiny bodies.”
Green sea turtle hatchlings weigh .05 pounds and measure 2 inches long. If they survive to adulthood, they can grow to more than three feet long and weigh 300-440 pounds. Greens are the largest of the hard-shelled sea turtles but have small heads. Their carapace can be shades of gray, black, yellow, brown, or olive green, but their belly is creamy white or yellow. Green turtles are named for the green-colored fat tissue under their shells, which comes from their diet of seagrass and algae. Although hatchlings are omnivores, adults are herbivores.
Over 90 percent of sea turtle nesting in the continental US happens in Florida. Less than 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will reach sexual maturity in 20-40 years. When ready to breed, the female green turtle will swim hundreds of miles from her foraging area to the waters off her nesting beach. How she navigates entire ocean basins to return to the same area where she hatched remains a mystery. After mating with one or more males, she will nest several times during May-September, typically laying an average of four clutches with about 135 eggs per nest. During her two-hour nesting process, she crawls onshore, creates a huge body pit, digs an egg chamber, and covers her eggs, moving about a ton of beach sand. Throughout her two month nesting season, the female does not feed, which may be why she nests every other year.
Green sea turtle returning home after nesting at dawn
After about 50-60 days of incubation, hatchlings emerge at night, facing numerous predators, including armadillos, seabirds, crabs, raccoons, sharks, and man. Although it is illegal to eat sea turtle eggs and sea turtles in the U.S., it is legal in some parts of the world. Seawalls, light pollution, and poorly made artificial beaches reduce hatchling production. Hatchlings use the brightness of the open sky above the water to navigate seaward. Artificial lights lead hatchlings astray and predators (such as red ants) attack them or they die of dehydration. Tens of thousands of hatchlings die each year because of lights on the beach.
Loggerhead hatchling (left) and Green sea turtle hatchling (right) released during turtle patrol
Please help these amazing creatures by observing from a distance if you encounter a nesting turtle or hatchlings, and turning off lights and flashlights on the beach during turtle season. If you dig a hole, fill it in so a tiny hatchling doesn’t get trapped.
Storm surges, from hurricanes such as IRMA, destroy nests, drown and strand hatchlings. Almost 100 percent of stranded hatchlings have ingested plastic, so pick up trash and don’t float balloons over the ocean. Green turtles represent a conservation success story, but they remain threatened with extinction. Let's help them survive.
Green sea turtle returning home (long exposure taken without flash).