You Are What You Eat- Research Sheds Light On Endangered Sea Turtles

Sea Turtle

With an eye toward understanding how to better protect the species, Florida researchers are shedding new light on the feeding ecology of the Kemp’s ridley turtle using the idea that, “You are what you eat.”

The Kemp’s ridley turtle is considered the most endangered sea turtle. However, it also happens to be the most common species residing in the coastal waters of southwest Florida. Understanding their food habits and position in the food web helps determine how to protect the estuarine habitats of this endangered species.

This has led researchers to conduct a new study of Kemp’s ridley turtles in the Ten Thousand Islands area on the coast of southwest Florida. Conservancy of Southwest Florida Research Manager Dr. Jeff Schmid, Greg Curry of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and Dr. Jeff Seminoff with the National Marine Fisheries Service are using chemistry to find out where Kemp’s ridley turtles exist in the food web.

The chemical composition of an animal is derived from its diet, hence the concept of “you are what you eat.” Researchers will compare the chemical composition of Kemp’s ridleys, their prey and habitat components (crabs, seagrasses and sessile invertebrates) to create a food web for the Ten Thousand Islands estuary.

A similar study was performed to the north in the Pine Island Sound portion of Charlotte Harbor and provides a basis for comparison between estuarine feeding grounds. Read the study and findings at www.conservancy.org/Kemps-Ridley-Sea-Turtle.

Kemp’s ridleys are primarily crab-eaters, but earlier work found that turtle’s inhabiting the Ten Thousand Islands preyed heavily on tunicates, also known as sea squirts.

“Some of the ridley diet samples had up to 120 tunicates, so turtles were eating them like popcorn,” said Dr. Schmid. “Consumption of tunicates puts the turtles at risk during red tide blooms as indicated in the Charlotte Harbor studies.”

These research efforts are funded by grants from the Sea Turtle Grants Program, which is supported by proceeds from the sale of the Florida Sea Turtle License Plate (www.helpingseaturtle.org). Research activities are conducted under NMFS permit #18069 and FFWCC permit #136.

In related work, Schmid and Curry recently put satellite trackers on Kemp’s ridleys to study their movements in the Ten Thousand Islands and surrounding waters. More tags will be deployed in the coming months to provide a better understanding of how turtles use these vital estuarine feeding grounds. These satellite tags are funded by generous donations from the Conservancy’s annual Magic Under the Mangroves fundraising gala. Track the day-to-day movements of our Kemp’s ridleys by visiting http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/?project_id=1032.

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