Prehistoric Turtle Threatened by Modern Menace

Mar 13, 2009
A leatherback turtle.

They survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. They're descendants of one of the oldest family trees in history, spanning 100 million years. But today leatherback turtles, the most widely distributed reptiles on Earth, are threatened with extinction themselves, in large part due to the carelessness of humans.

We've seen reference to the dangers plastic poses to marine life, garbage that we humans directly and indirectly deposit in the oceans, but how clearly have we received the message? Not well enough according to a recent article in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin entitled “Leatherback : The menace of plastic,” co-authored by Dalhousie University's Mike James.

“We wanted to see if plastics ingestion in leatherbacks was hype or reality,” says Dr. James, senior species at risk biologist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and adjunct professor with Dalhousie’s Department of Biology.

“It was a monumental effort that looked back at necropsies over the last century from all over the world,” he explains. (Necropsies are post-mortem examinations performed on animals.) “After reviewing the results of 371 necropsies since 1968, we discovered over one third of the turtles had ingested plastic.”

Since leatherbacks prefer eating jellyfish, it's widely believed they mistake bags or other plastics for their meals. Since jellyfish and marine debris concentrate where ocean water masses meet, leatherbacks feeding in these areas are vulnerable to ingesting plastic.

Once leatherbacks ingest plastic, thousands of spines lining the throat and esophagus make it nearly impossible to regurgitate. The plastic can lead to partial or even complete obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in decreased digestive efficiency, energetic and reproductive costs and, for some, starvation.

“Plastics ingestion doesn’t always cause death, but there are clearly health risks to the turtles,” says Dr.James.

Fascinated by reptiles as a child, Dr. James developed a lifelong interest in turtles, from raising them as a kid, to his PhD research and now as a biologist and conservationist. He says there are simple ways to stop these ongoing threats.

“The frustrating, yet hopeful aspect is that humans can easily begin addressing the solution, without major lifestyle changes,” says Dr. James. “It's as simple as reducing packaging and moving towards alternative, biodegradable materials and recycling.”

Leatherback turtles are classified as critically endangered world-wide. The true population size is not precisely known, as only adult females come ashore for nesting in remote tropical locations. During the summer and fall, Canadian waters support the highest density of foraging leatherbacks in the North Atlantic.

Provided by Dalhousie University

Explore further: Invasive vines swallow up New York's natural areas

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Plastic bags killing Queensland’s turtles

Mar 13, 2008

A group of University of Queensland researchers are urging Queenslanders to avoid littering the state's marine environment during the upcoming Easter holiday weekend.

Turtles are loyal in feeding as well as in breeding

Apr 25, 2007

A research team led by the Dr Annette Broderick of the University of Exeter’s School of Biosciences has discovered that, after laying their eggs, sea turtles travel hundreds of miles to feed at exactly the same sites. The ...

Recommended for you

Invasive vines swallow up New York's natural areas

13 hours ago

(Phys.org) —When Antonio DiTommaso, a Cornell weed ecologist, first spotted pale swallow-wort in 2001, he was puzzled by it. Soon he noticed many Cornell old-field edges were overrun with the weedy vines. ...

Citizen scientists match research tool when counting sharks

Apr 23, 2014

Shark data collected by citizen scientists may be as reliable as data collected using automated tools, according to results published April 23, 2014, in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Gabriel Vianna from The University of Wes ...

Researchers detail newly discovered deer migration

Apr 23, 2014

A team of researchers including University of Wyoming scientists has documented the longest migration of mule deer ever recorded, the latest development in an initiative to understand and conserve ungulate ...

How Australia got the hump with one million feral camels

Apr 23, 2014

A new study by a University of Exeter researcher has shed light on how an estimated one million-strong population of wild camels thriving in Australia's remote outback have become reviled as pests and culled ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nartoon
1 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2009
Phew, thank God it isn't AGW!

More news stories

Genetic code of the deadly tsetse fly unraveled

Mining the genome of the disease-transmitting tsetse fly, researchers have revealed the genetic adaptions that allow it to have such unique biology and transmit disease to both humans and animals.

Ocean microbes display remarkable genetic diversity

The smallest, most abundant marine microbe, Prochlorococcus, is a photosynthetic bacteria species essential to the marine ecosystem. An estimated billion billion billion of the single-cell creatures live i ...

Cell resiliency surprises scientists

New research shows that cells are more resilient in taking care of their DNA than scientists originally thought. Even when missing critical components, cells can adapt and make copies of their DNA in an alternative ...