Sea Turtle Habitat Use at Buck Island Reef National Monument, U.S. Virgin Islands

Science Center Objects

USGS researchers tag and track endangered and threatened sea turtles to inform adaptive management strategies in marine protected areas.

Sea Turtle Habitat Use at Buck Island Reef National Monument, U.S. Virgin Islands

A Green sea turtle is released after tagging.

The Science Issue and Relevance: Endangered and threatened species research is necessary within marine protected areas to inform adaptive management strategies, especially in areas with high levels of human use. Buck Island Reef National Monument’s (BIRNM) boundary was expanded in 2001, and this more recently protected area has not been investigated for sea turtle habitat use. BIRNM includes one of the most important nesting areas for federally endangered hawksbill turtles in the U.S., and Buck Island has been identified as an index beach necessary for the recovery of this species in the eastern Caribbean. Endangered green and leatherback turtles, and some threatened loggerheads also nest at BIRNM. Ensuring that sea turtles at Buck Island are protected from threats within BIRNM is required by federal statutes, and this research aims to contribute to their protection by deciphering spatial and temporal habitat-use patterns. It also directly addresses specific Recovery Objectives outlined in the Federal Recovery Plans for hawksbills, greens, and loggerheads.

Methodology for Addressing the Issue: In cooperation with the National Park Service’s ongoing long-term monitoring of the nesting beach at BIRNM, we are deploying satellite, acoustic and very fine scale acceleration data-logger (ADL) tags on nesting females and turtles captured in the water. Additionally, we began capturing and observing turtles in the water in the spring of 2012. These sightings helped determine high turtle-density areas where consistent, standard in-water capture-recapture efforts will be concentrated. All turtles will be sampled for isotopes and genetics, and a majority of the juveniles will also receive acoustic tags. We also added to and expanded the array of acoustic receivers throughout the monument to track tagged-turtle movements. 

Future Steps: Since 2011 we have deployed 49 satellite tags on adult female nesters (37 hawksbills, 12 green, see  http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?project_id=663); 38 also received an acoustic tag. These tagged turtles provided thousands of acoustic detections and whose satellite tags have transmitted up to 850 days on a single turtle. We have also deployed 12 accelerometers on female nesters (9 hawksbills, 3 green turtles) and 4 juvenile hawksbills. The data recovered from the ADLs paired with the spatial data received from the satellite and acoustic tags will provide us with fine-scale habitat-use information and activity patterns. Since 2012, 340 turtles (258 greens, 82 hawksbills) have been captured in the water and of those 175 (52%) were recaptures. Additionally, 145 acoustic tags have been deployed on 127 turtles. Each year we regularly download data from acoustic receivers to determine fine-scale movement patterns of turtles and further our understanding of how they are using the BIRNM resources. We are also identifying home ranges, core-use areas, and migration patterns of the turtles from the satellite tracking data. Additional turtles will be outfitted with satellite and acoustic tags during 2016.  

Sea Turtle Habitat Use at Buck Island Reef National Monument, U.S. Virgin Islands

Green sea turtle with satellite tag.

Additional Related Product(s):

Benthic habitat characterization and habitat use of endangered sea turtles in Marine Protected Areas of the Greater Everglades (PES and CMG funded)

Bjorndal KA, Chaloupka M, Saba VS, Diez CE, Van Dam PR, Krueger BH, Horrocks JA, Santos AJB, Bellini C, Marcovaldi MAG, Nava M, Willis S, Godley BJ, Gore S, Hawkes LA, McGowan A, Witt MJ, Stringell TB, Sanghera A, Richardson PB, Broderick AC, Phillips Q, Calosso MC, Claydon JAB, Blumenthal J, Moncada F, Nodarse G, Medina Y, Dunbar SG, Wood LD, Languez CJ, Campbell CL, Meylan PA, Burns Perez VR, Coleman RA, Strindberg S, Guzman-H V, Hart KM, Cherkiss MS, Hillis-Starr Z, Lundgren IF, Boulon RH, Connett S, Outerbridge ME, Bolten AB (Accepted) Somatic growth dynamics of West Atlantic hawksbill turtles: a spatio-temporal perspective. Ecosphere.

Selby TH, Hart KM, Fujisaki I, Smith BJ, Pollock CJ, Hillis-Starr Z, Lundgren I, Oli MK (Submitted) Can you hear me now? Range-testing a submerged passive acoustic receiver array in a Caribbean coral reef habitat.

Selby TH (Spring 2016) Using passive acoustic technology to analyze juvenile hawksbill utilization of Buck Island Reef National Monument, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Thesis to be presented to the University of Florida.

Hart KM, Sartain-Iverson AR, Benscoter AM, Fujisaki I, Cherkiss MS, Pollock C, Lundgren I, Hillis-Starr ZM (In Prep) Migration and foraging of hawksbill sea turtles (Erectmochelys imbricata) tagged at Buck Island Reef National Monument, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Hart KM, Sartain-Iverson AR, Benscoter AM, Fujisaki I, Cherkiss MS, Pollock C, Lundgren I, Hillis-Starr ZM (In Prep) Breeding season habitat use of hawksbills nesting at Buck Island Reef National Monument, St. Croix, USVI.

Hart KM, Sartain-Iverson AR, Benscoter AM, Fujisaki I, Cherkiss MS, Hillis-Starr ZM, Pollock C, Lundgren I (In Prep) Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) habitat use during breeding and non-breeding periods after nesting at Buck Island Reef National Monument, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Sea Turtle Habitat Use at Buck Island Reef National Monument, U.S. Virgin Islands

Buck Island Reef National Monument, U.S. Virgin Islands

Hart KM (2010) Use of protected areas by threatened and endangered marine turtles in the Dry Tortugas Pg:12-13, In: Hallac, D and J. Hunt, editors. Implementing the Dry Tortugas National Park Research Natural Areas Science Plan: the 3-year report. South Florida Natural Resources Center, Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, Homestead, FL, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tallahassee, FL. 37 pp

Hart KM (2008) Sea turtles in the Dry Tortugas: Tracking Movements of Endangered Species in Florida’s Coral Reef Habitats. USGS Soundwaves, December. http://soundwaves.usgs.gov