The Odd Life of a Sea Turtle

Sea turtles have an odd life. They are aquatic reptiles, of course, and can’t control their body temperature.  Since they are at the mercy of water temperatures, it would lead one to believe that they are only found in warm waters, but oddly, they prefer to nest in subtropical areas. Here in the US, they generally nest from North Carolina to Florida as well as in the Gulf.  For the Logger- head turtle, 88% of nesting occurs in the United States, Australia and Oman.¹ Nesting is the extent of their land use, otherwise they are always ‘at sea’. Younger turtles tend to stay in shallow water and marsh estuaries, eventually migrating out to the Sargassum Sea. Adult males will, if healthy, never touch land after hatching.

Sea turtles depend on the ocean for both food and habitat.  To call a sea turtle an opportunistic feeder seems a bit generous to me. Their small brain leads them to taste test anything that floats past their face. While this may have been a good strategy for survival in the past, it is now leading many turtles to their demise due to plastic bags and other trash items being ingested and causing compaction.  Their bite-first, ask-questions-later attitude may seem silly to us, but in all truth, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a grocery sack and a moon jellyfish unless you touch it.  Increased runoff of sediments and pollutants impedes a sea turtle’s success as well, reducing visibility in the water and adding toxins into their diet.

Unlike fish and other aquatic creatures, sea turtles also require the use of terrestrial habitat as well. They selectively nest on barrier islands and beaches, places that are dominated by change and transition, as well as concentrated numbers of recreationists and human habitation.  When sea turtles evolved to plant their nests on beaches and barrier islands, they were banking on the fact that these areas, relatively speaking, were quiet and safe.  They sought out these areas not only for the hatchlings, but also because of the fact that is takes so much energy to haul a large and heavy shell up the beach. When you think of a box ‘turtle’, which is actually a tortoise, you think of an animal that has a shell it can retract into for protection.  Sea turtles can’t retract into their shells.  It only serves as armor to protect their vital organs.  It is awkwardly heavy since the turtle spends almost all of its life in water where weight doesn’t factor in the same as being on land.  The turtles literally exhaust themselves hauling those heavy shells up the beach, laying eggs, and hauling themselves back to the ocean.  In all of this effort, the last thing you’d want is another creature harassing you as you haul yourself around.

Sea turtles, in all of their peculiarities, are just another cog in the system, a part of the whole equation.  While they seem sometimes odd, sometimes cumbersome and hard for us humans to work and live around, they are a necessary piece. While we figure we could get along without them, we aren’t fully aware of their place in such a complex system, since studying just a part, such as one species, can only give you limited insight into an ecosystem.  Think of water, for example.  It can put out fires, but when you take it apart and investigate the molecules in it, hydrogen is combustible and oxygen is necessary for fire to burn.  So just as the pieces that comprise water aren’t a good representation of water itself, a sea turtle is the same for the ocean and beach ecosystems.


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