Surprising Facts About Baby Sea Turtles
What's tiny, wobbly and fighting to make it to the water? That's right, it's a baby sea turtle!
Possibly the cutest baby animals in the world, sea turtles capture the hearts of people from the second they are born. Surviving since the age of the dinosaurs, these creatures are worthy of praise.
These incredible facts about baby sea turtles will make you love the species even more.
They Are Orphans from the Start
The life of every sea turtle starts at a beach. At certain times of the year, different species come ashore to make a hole in the sand, lay their eggs and then go back into the water. Unlike most other animals, they never see their offspring nor do they help them in the first years of their life.
Instead, baby sea turtles come into the world together and dash to the sea with the rest of their nest. Sometimes, multiple nests hatch at the same time, making for a magnificent spectacle for anyone lucky enough to witness it.
Not Many Baby Sea Turtles Survive
Tragically, many hatchlings don't make it past the first hour of their life. David Godfrey, the executive director of Sea Turtle Conservancy, explains that it's because they're easy catch for air, land and sea predators. "Everything in the marine environment wants to eat them," he says.
As if from a D-Day landing scene, they struggle to get past their enemy. In the sand, species like seabirds, crabs, raccoons and lizards swoop down for an easy feast. Then, when they go into the water, they face fish like barracuda and tarpons who are more than happy to get a large supply of bite-sized snacks.
All in all, only one in one in one thousand manage to grow up and become adults. No, we're not crying. Dirt just got into our eyes.
Baby Sea Turtles Have Two Main Mechanisms
Given their low survival rates, it's astonishing that some of them make it to safety. Godfrey states that they have two passive defense mechanisms.
First, "they don't emerge from their nest and enter the sea until it's nighttime, because they're less visible." They also hatch together in large numbers. This way, though some of them will inevitably get eaten, others have a chance to escape.
Baby Sea Turtles Releases May Cause More Harm Than Good
As you now know, darkness and strength in numbers is the main way sea turtles survive past their first day. Some irresponsible companies ignore the wisdom of nature, offering hatchling release experiences during the day.
But, as Godfrey eloquently (and maybe graphically) explains, "you're releasing one turtle or a couple during the day. Now the four or five fish out there are going to pick all of them off and none are going to make it.
"You're spoon-feeding the predatory fish." Yikes.
To witness a sea turtle hatching responsibly, make sure that the release is at night and done in large numbers. Any light used should be dim and orange or red so as to not confuse the hatchlings. Finally, no one should be directly in front of them.
Sea Turtles Grow Up to Be Nomads
So, what happens to those lucky few baby sea turtles who make it out of the war zone alive? According to Godfrey, they usually hide in "floating mats of sargassum weed" and then spend years exploring the globe.
Godfrey describes the adventure in detail. "One hatchling is going to travel thousands and thousands and thousands of miles. It gets into the ocean on the east coast of Florida, for example. It then swims out 50 miles and gets caught up in the floating sargassum of the Gulf Stream. [Next it] floats to the far North Atlantic, over to Europe, down to Africa, and back to the Caribbean in a giant Atlantic gyre."
Yes, we admit we're jealous.
And Then Join a Commune
After years of floating around, having adventures around the great wide world, they get the urge to settle down.
When a turtle gets to the size of a Frisbee," Godfrey says, "it instinctively knows, 'you know what? I'm done with this collegiate existence.' And they start looking for a place to live near the shore and take up a residency near some beautiful island."
The turtles stay in the developmental habitat and grow up there for another 20 years.
Once they hit their late 20s or early 30s, they decide it's time to pick back up again and join an adult colony. Here, they're free to enjoy adulthood.
That's right. Like many not-so-young hippies in the '70s, turtles get tired of their wild youth and head into a commune.
Turtles Nest in the Same Beach They Were Born
But that's not the end of the sea turtle's life. After years of communal living, their biological clock suddenly hits them with urgency.
"Thirty-five or 40 years after they first crawled down into the sea, they're triggered somehow to migrate back to the beach where they were born," Godfrey exclaims with awe in his voice. "They can find it. They know how to get there. They've never been there again, but they know how to find it and they reproduce."
After they've nested, the turtles — which by now could be as tall as nine feet long, if they're leatherbacks — go back into the water and return to their adult colony.
We agree with Godfrey when he claims that "it's a spectacular life history."
Sea Turtles Are Master Navigators
How can sea turtles know exactly where to go without star maps or GPS systems? They use the Earth's geomagnetic field. Yeah, these baby animals really are absurdly cool.
"They actually have the ability to detect the magnetic field of the Earth, which has distinct characteristics depending on where you are," clarifies Godfrey.
He adds, "basically, they have a latitude and longitude plot in their brains that is established by the Earth's geomagnetic field, and they migrate using that."
Do we even need to explain why these beings are extremely precious?
Humans Need Sea Turtles
Why should you care what happens or doesn't happen to sea turtles?
First of all, look at them. If you don't automatically want to protect these adorable creatures, you've got no heart.
But if you're one of those people who is always wondering what's in it for them, you'll still want to root for their conservation.
As a keystone species, some sea turtles are essential to the survival of their environment. The hawksbill turtle helps coral reefs stay healthy and diverse by eating sponges and algae that grow on coral. Reefs are known as the nurseries of the sea because they provide a habitat for many species that are important to the food chain. Plus, they help create a barrier against strong waves and storms.
Another way that they help us is by stabilizing sand dunes. The turtles that die before they hatch, and those that get eaten before they reach the sea provide an important source of nutrients for animals and plants on dunes. They're one of the few species that do that.
"The healthier the dunes are," Godfrey posits, "the more stable they are." And since dunes serve to absorb high tides, and prevent shore erosion, we definitely want them to be as stable as possible.
So if you have a Florida beach house, you can thank dunes — and sea turtles — for saving it.
And if you don't, you can still thank them for helping the environments from which much of our food comes.
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