My friends and I walked over the cold sand along Tom’s Cove in Chincoteague, Virginia. I pulled on my gloves to ward off the November chill. We were there to find winter shorebirds, but we found something much, much cooler! A flock of geese ahead of us took flight, revealing a prone form behind them. We ran out to what we thought was a dead Snow Goose, but as we approached it became clear it was actually a sea turtle!
Chelonia mydas, the green sea turtle, is readily identified by their single pair of prefrontal scales. Their range is hard to describe, so I attached a picture. They breed mostly in tropical waters, but the Virginia Aquarium told me we have a couple C. mydas nests on our coasts as well. Other species of sea turtles Virginia sees in its waters include Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, Hawksbill, and Leatherback. The other species known to nest with any regularity is the Loggerhead.
C. mydas are unique among sea turtles for having a serrated lower jaw which they use to tear at grass beds. Although they are largely herbivores in their adult lives, they prefer a carnivorous diet until approximately their third year. The grass bed sites regularly fed upon by green sea turtles are known as ‘pastures’ and are a prime breeding ground for many marine animals such as sea horses. The West Indian Manatee is also a ‘pasture grazer,’ but it is not known whether the green sea turtle and the manatee compete for food.
Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the sea turtle we found had recently died. We called the Virginia Stranding Team, a group with the Virginia Aquarium that rescues live and collects dead marine mammals and sea turtles, to let them know about the turtle for collection. They asked us for the exact location, so we used Google maps to plot the location and send it to them. We also posed for some photos with the turtle to document our amazing find! The people at the aquarium collect dead sea turtles and perform necropsies to determine the cause of death, so that they can learn what threats sea turtles face and figure out ways to conserve them. Later, I contacted the aquarium and discovered our sea turtle friend passed from a cold stun – a sudden drop of temperature in the water.
Green sea turtles are listed in CITES as Appendix I and as endangered on the IUCN red list. Appendix I means the species is threatened with extinction and could be impacted by trade. Historically, C. mydas were much more numerous, but human exploitation and hunting has reduced populations to about 3-7% of their historic levels. Current conservation concerns include shrimp trawling, light pollution, and nitrogen pollution among others. Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) that are now standard for shrimp trawling nets prevent the drowning of sea turtles and dolphins, but it is thought that the sea turtles still die from shock, proving TEDs useless for sea turtle survival; hatchling sea turtles travel towards the lightest horizon which, naturally, would be the horizon over the ocean, but light pollution from cities and towns cause the hatchlings to travel in the opposite direction to be picked off by ghost crabs, raccoons, and other predators; excess nitrogen causes red algae blooms, outcompeting green algae and giving sea turtles one option of algae for consumption – the kind known to cause fibropapillomatosis, a herpes like virus plaguing sea turtle populations. Sea turtles have many conservation concerns but, due to their world-wide range, a global conservation effort is needed to conserve this species and other species of sea turtles.
Thank you for reading! I used “Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States” by Carol Ruckdeschel and C. Robert Shoop and “Turtles of the South east” by Kurt Buhlmann, Tracey Tuberville, and Whit Gibbons. This article was edited by Matthew Anthony. If you liked this post, you may want to read my other works. Follow my twitter to get updates!