Newborn Turtles’ Mysterious “Lost Years” Finally Revealed

By Breanna Draxler | March 5, 2014 10:47 am

loggerhead turtle

After tiny loggerhead turtles hatch from eggs buried on Florida beaches, they scramble frantically out to sea. Once in the open water, we see neither hide nor hair of these endangered turtles until they show up as teenagers on the other side of the Atlantic. But a new study, the first to track newborn turtles during these “lost years,” has finally found out what happens.

The mystery of sea turtles’ “lost years” had long stumped marine biologists, including study author Jeanette Wyneken of Florida Atlantic University, who described the lack of existing data in a press release:

“From the time they leave our shores, we don’t hear anything about them until they are found near the Canary Islands. Those waters are a bit like nursery school for them, as they stay for about four to eight years. There’s a whole lot that happens crossing the Atlantic that we knew nothing about.”

So Wyneken and colleagues equipped newborn loggerhead turtles with tiny solar-powered transmitters, which allowed the researchers to follow their movements via satellite. Many of their findings confirmed previous theories, but this is the first real proof scientists have seen.

baby loggerhead turtle

Black lines show the paths followed by individual turtle babies (109 to 281 days old). The colors represent water temperature. The inset shows the solar-powered transmitter on a test subject. Image credit: Wyneken, et al.

Turtle Tracks

Unlike adult turtles, youngsters spent less than two percent of their time in Continental Shelf waters, where predators often lurk. Instead, the turtle tots often cruised on the Gulf Stream or on currents in another underwater superhighway, the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre (like the one ridden by Crush and Squirt in Finding Nemo).

The turtles seemed unconcerned about taking the most direct route across the Atlantic, though. They all traveled generally clockwise (probably using the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass) but some individuals took shortcuts while others opted for scenic routes. The baby turtles often exited the superhighway to hang out in floating mats of seaweed called Sargassum at the ocean’s surface. Researchers, already aware of these pit stops, had previously surmised that the greenery offered food and camouflage to protect the newborns from predators.

A Warm Blanket

What the researchers didn’t realize was that in addition to these resources, the Sargasso Sea offers turtles much warmer waters. Tucked within the strands of seaweed, the turtles enjoy temperatures 4 to 6 degrees Celsius higher than the open ocean surface, according to their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Researchers think that the extended periods of time spent here boost turtles’ metabolisms, increasing their growth rate up to 50 percent.

Plus, being exposed to the sun’s UV light also provides the vitamin D necessary for the young turtles’ shell development. Combined, these forces could trigger a real turtle growth spurt.

 

Image by Benjamin Albiach Galan / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, ecology, ocean
  • melitagnm105

    My Uncle Connor got Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG use this link
    J­u­m­p­9­9­9­.­ℂ­o­m

  • José Truda Palazzo Jr.

    One more reason to extend protection of the Sargasso Sea!

  • Abby pleasant

    Where do they go if they do not return to the beaches they are born on?

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      maybe…Turtle Heaven?

  • quadrill

    Anyone who wants to read a great novel should pick up ‘ Beach Music’ by Pat Conroy . Learned a lot about these fascinating animals from the book when I read it years ago.

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