Tracking Elusive Male Sea Turtles with Satellites

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Through satellite telemetry, researchers have discovered patterns of migratory behavior of long-lived imperiled marine reptiles.

This article is part of the December 2020-March 2021 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.


A sea turtle swimming in clear blue water

Satellite tagged male green sea turtle after release in the Dry Tortugas National Park.

(Public domain.)

Many sea turtle tracking and ecological studies have focused on females due to ease of access to individuals on the beach during a nesting event. In contrast, male sea turtles have been understudied and details of their behavioral ecology remain largely unknown. A better understanding of male movement patterns and space-use could help inform understanding of population dynamics, spatial ecology, and threats faced by male sea turtles.

USGS Scientist Dr. Kristen Hart and her team at the Wetland and Aquatic Research Center (WARC) in south Florida have focused research efforts over the last decade on capturing, tagging, and tracking male sea turtles to fill these knowledge gaps.

Between 2009 and 2019, the team outfitted 40 male sea turtles with satellite tracking devices, including 25 green turtles (Chelonia mydas), eight loggerheads (Caretta caretta), six Kemp’s ridleys (Lepidochelys kempii), and one hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). The team captured turtles in the water at sites across the southeastern region of the United States including areas in the northern Gulf of Mexico, in several areas in south Florida within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and  within Buck Island Reef National Monument in the Caribbean at St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

two scientists swimming in clear blue water to capture a sea turtle

USGS biologists hand capture a male loggerhead sea turtle in Dry Tortugas National Park.

(Credit: Andrew Crowder, USGS. Public domain.)


Once published, the male turtle tracking dataset will be one of the largest male tracking studies ever documented worldwide. Preliminary analyses of the spatial tracking data has allowed Hart’s team to decipher the timing of male breeding migrations and movement behaviors that could help inform sea turtle management and protection strategies. The group is excited to share pictures from their work. They are expecting to publish their findings in 2021.









A map of South Florida and the Florida keys with green lines showing satellite locations of a sea turtle over time

The satellite tracking map (yellow lines show satellite locations over time) of a male green sea turtle tagged in Dry Tortugas National Park, FL. The turtle made “looping” movements during summer breeding months south of the U.S. protected waters into international waters and in areas with shipping lanes and other marine traffic. Image credit: Google Earth

(Public domain.)

A map of South Florida and the Florida keys with yellow lines showing satellite locations of a sea turtle over time

The satellite tracking map (yellow lines show satellite locations over time) of a loggerhead sea turtle tagged in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The male turtle traveled to Palm Beach County, Florida for a probable breeding foray during March of 2020.   Image credit: Google Earth

(Public domain.)



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