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Spatial requirements of different life-stages of the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) from a distinct population segment in the northern Gulf of Mexico

June 1, 2015

Many marine species have complex life histories that involve disparate developmental, foraging and reproductive habitats and a holistic assessment of the spatial requirements for different life stages is a challenge that greatly complicates their management. Here, we combined data from oceanographic modeling, nesting surveys, and satellite tracking to examine the spatial requirements of different life stages of Loggerhead Turtles (Caretta caretta) from a distinct population segment in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Our findings indicate that after emerging from nesting beaches in Alabama and Northwest Florida, hatchlings disperse widely and the proportion of turtles following a given route varies substantially through time, with the majority (mean of 74.4%) projected to leave the Gulf of Mexico. Adult females use neritic habitat throughout the northern and eastern Gulf of Mexico both during the inter-nesting phase and as post-nesting foraging areas. Movements and habitat use of juveniles and adult males represent a large gap in our knowledge, but given the hatchling dispersal predictions and tracks of post-nesting females it is likely that some Loggerhead Turtles remain in the Gulf of Mexico throughout their life. More than two-thirds of the Gulf provides potential habitat for at least one life-stage of Loggerhead Turtles. These results demonstrate the importance of the Gulf of Mexico to this Distinct Population Segment of Loggerhead Turtles. It also highlights the benefits of undertaking comprehensive studies of multiple life stages simultaneously: loss of individual habitats have the potential to affect several life stages thereby having long-term consequences to population recovery.