Survey identifies sea turtle 'hitchhikers'

Nov 08, 2011
These are barnacles collected from Olive Ridley and green sea turtles during a survey documenting the crustaceans, mollusks, algae and other marine organisms that make a home on the bodies of Olive Ridley and green sea turtles living in the Pacific. Credit: Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History

A recent survey documented the crustaceans, mollusks, algae and other marine organisms that make a home on the bodies Olive Ridley and green sea turtles living in the Pacific.

"It is strange to think of a sea turtle as an ecosystem," says Amanda Feuerstein, program coordinator and research assistant at the Smithsonian's , "but they are…they have all of these other animals living on their skin and shells."

Feuerstein is co-author of a recent documenting the crustaceans, , and other that make a home on the bodies Olive Ridley and green living in the Pacific.

For three years -- 2001, 2002 and 2008 -- on Teopa Beach in Jalisco, Mexico, Feuerstein and colleagues examined the shell, neck and flippers of female turtles that had come out onto the beach to nest, collecting and carefully documenting all the organisms -- known as epibionts -- they found. It is the first comprehensive survey on Pacific turtle epibionts, and was recently published in the Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. The survey was organized by the Turtle Epibiont Project of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

These are some of the crustaceans collected from the bodies of Olive Ridley and green sea turtles during a survey documenting the crustaceans, mollusks, algae and other marine organisms that make a home on the bodies of Olive Ridley and green sea turtles living in the Pacific. Credit: Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History

Sixteen different epibiont species were found on the turtles, Feuerstein says, including crabs, a variety of barnacles, the remora or "shark sucker," and leeches. Most of the Pacific sea turtle epibionts are obligate -- meaning they are found only on sea turtles, nowhere else.

Compared to turtles living in the Atlantic, "the Pacific turtles are coming up pretty darn clean," says Eric Lazo-Wasme of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, lead author of the study. Similar surveys of Atlantic Ocean turtles have recorded as many as 90 epibiont species living on them. The scientists are uncertain why Pacific turtles have fewer epibionts.

"For years we considered epibionts as harmless hitchhikers on the turtles, but that opinion is starting to change," Lazo-Wasem explains. "Barnacles in large numbers can cause significant drag on a turtle as it swims and some barnacles embed into the skin and have very long projections that pierce laterally into the skin." Leeches have also been shown to transmit disease.

Smithsonian research assistant Amanda Feuerstein with a nesting sea turtle. She co-authored a survey documenting the crustaceans, mollusks, algae and other marine organisms that make a home on the bodies of Olive Ridley and green sea turtles living in the Pacific. Credit: Photo courtesy of Amanda Feuerstein

The impetus for the survey was born out of conservation concern for sea turtles as an endangered species. Coevolutionary relationships between turtles and their epibionts, and how these relationships affect turtle health and ecology have only recently come under scrutiny, the researchers say.

The study includes photographs of and taxonomic commentary on each of the epibiont species documented and survey instructions for future studies on how to collect epibionts from sea turtles.

"We wanted to make the paper one that people could really use," Lazo-Wasem says. "We weren't really pleased with past surveys because there was not a lot of detail in them."

"When we endanger animals like sea many other groups of animals are affected," Feuerstein says. "Loosing one species is more complicated and tragic" than people may realize.

Explore further: Poachers threaten new slaughter of South African elephants

More information: "Epibionts Associated with the Nesting Marine Turtles Lepidochelys olivacea and Chelonia mydas in Jalisco, Mexico: A Review and Field Guide," appeared in the Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Five sea turtle populations are endangered

Sep 16, 2011

The United States issued a ruling on Friday saying that five world populations of loggerhead sea turtles are endangered species but four are only "threatened."

South Asia most dangerous for sea turtles: study

Sep 29, 2011

The waters around India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are home to the world's most endangered sea turtles, according to a study released Thursday aimed at setting a blueprint for global conservation.

Battle to save Gulf sea turtles from oily death

Jul 27, 2010

While BP struggles to finally seal the leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well, an equally desperate battle has been enjoined on the surface to save endangered sea turtles from meeting an oily grave.

Recommended for you

Japan wraps up Pacific whale hunt

10 hours ago

Japan announced Tuesday that it had wrapped up a whale hunt in the Pacific, the second campaign since the UN's top court ordered Tokyo to halt a separate slaughter in the Antarctic.

Algae under threat from invasive fish

11 hours ago

Tropical fish invading temperate waters warmed as a result of climate change are overgrazing algae, posing a threat to biodiversity and some marine-based industries.

User comments : 0