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Hatchling sea turtles take enlightened path to survive

As I See It

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Media contact: Rodney Barreto

Some of the most routine habits we engage in on a daily basis can occasionally have some serious, unintended consequences for wildlife, and that is especially so for imperiled species. Beachcombers out for a relaxing walk with the family dog may not recognize the signs that their presence has become a threat to nesting shorebirds and that they should detour around the area. Homeowners who leave a dirty barbecue grill in the backyard overnight, or unsecured trash or foodstuffs where wildlife can access it, can inadvertently create the catalyst for nuisance wildlife behaviors - with solutions that are palatable to no one.

Young sea turtle hatchlings, trying to make their escape from the dangers of their sandy birthplace to the relative safety of the water's edge, may be the poster children for wildlife that suffer from the unintended side-effects of human habitation and habit.

Under the best conditions, young sea turtles still experience high death rates, and only a very small percentage survive to adulthood. Even before these hatchlings make it to the relative safety of deeper water, predation by gulls and threats lurking in the nearby surf are heavy.

Furthermore, if these hatchlings don't head toward the water to begin with, there's virtually no chance even a small percentage will survive to return to the same beaches where their ancestors were born, to lay the eggs that are the foundation for generations to come.

It usually happens after dark on beaches throughout Florida on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Sea turtles begin nesting in March on the central-east Florida coast, with peak nesting from May through August. Nests incubate in the beach sand from 45 to 60 days during peak nesting season, and hatching season extends through Oct. 31.

As baby sea turtles start to hatch, a depression in the sand forms over the nest. The young turtles work their way to the surface and almost immediately head for the brightest horizon. Instinct tells these baby turtles that the sea reflects the greatest amount of light, and their only chance for survival lies in that direction - away from the darker shadows of the dunes that line the back of an undeveloped beach. Even when clouds obscure the stars and moon, the sea surface provides sufficient reflected light to lure the hatchlings - unless artificial light from beachfront homes and businesses interferes with Mother Nature's grand plan. 

The bright light at the front door of people's homes acts as an after-dark guidepost, welcoming them to a place of safety. But for baby sea turtles, bright, artificial lights splashing from a home or business toward the beach send them a false message - that the safety of the water lies in the direction of the building. It's usually a deadly piece of misinformation for baby turtles.

Adult female turtles also can suffer from light-disorientation when they come ashore at night to lay their eggs. Bright, artificial lights can cause adult turtles to head in the direction of a busy highway or toward other land-based dangers.

Fortunately, there's an easy and inexpensive fix to protect sea turtles from the disorienting effects of beach lighting: Simply shield your lights from shining toward the beach.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recommends lights be shielded starting on March 1 in Brevard and Broward counties, and May 1 in all other counties, through Oct. 31 everywhere. If there is a need to light development landward of the sea turtle nesting beach, special lighting systems are available. They are designed to eliminate the turtle's confusion as to which way the water really is.

There's still another common habit that can have very serious consequences for baby turtles.  During sea turtle nesting season, furniture should be removed from the beach at night because it acts as a barrier to the hatchlings. The delay exposes them to a greater risk of predation. Sometimes furniture proves an impenetrable barrier that hatchlings can't negotiate.

Some of the simple things we do and take for granted on a daily basis can have serious consequences for wildlife. No matter where you live in Florida, be it on a rural dirt road or on the beachfront where sea turtles and shorebirds nest - take a little time to find out about the wildlife in your area and check local lighting ordinances if you live on the coast. 

Visit MyFWC.com or call your nearest FWC regional office for information about the simple and inexpensive things you can do in your daily routine to help conserve and ensure the future for Florida's wildlife.

And to those who already make these minor adjustments to help wildlife survive for future generations, a sincere thank you.



FWC Facts:
The Marine Fisheries Stock Enhancement program breeds and rears game fish and mollusks for release into marine waters and evaluates the use of hatchery-reared animals.

Learn More at AskFWC