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Sympatry or syntopy? Investigating drivers of distribution and co‐occurrence for two imperiled sea turtle species in Gulf of Mexico neritic waters

December 18, 2018

Animals co‐occurring in a region (sympatry) may use the same habitat (syntopy) within that region. A central aim in ecology is determining what factors drive species distributions (i.e., abiotic conditions, dispersal limitations, and/or biotic interactions). Assessing the degree of biotic interactions can be difficult for species with wide ranges at sea. This study investigated the spatial ecology of two sea turtle species that forage on benthic invertebrates in neritic GoM waters: Kemp's ridleys (Lepidochelys kempii) and loggerheads (Caretta caretta). We used satellite tracking and modeled behavioral modes, then calculated individual home ranges, compared foraging areas, and determined extent of co‐occurrence. Using six environmental variables and principal component analysis, we assessed similarity of chosen foraging sites. We predicted foraging location (eco‐region) based on species, nesting site, and turtle size. For 127 turtles (64 Kemp's ridleys, 63 loggerheads) tracked from 1989 to 2013, foraging home ranges were nine to ten times larger for Kemp's ridleys than for loggerheads. Species intersected off all U.S. coasts and the Yucatán Peninsula, but co‐occurrence areas were small compared to species' distributions. Kemp's ridley foraging home ranges were concentrated in the northern GoM, whereas those for loggerheads were concentrated in the eastern GoM. The two species were different in all habitat variables compared (latitude, longitude, distance to shore, net primary production, mean sea surface temperature, and bathymetry). Nesting site was the single dominant variable that dictated foraging ecoregion. Although Kemp's ridleys and loggerheads may compete for resources, the separation in foraging areas, significant differences in environmental conditions, and importance of nesting location on ecoregion selection (i.e., dispersal ability) indicate that adult females of these species do not interact greatly during foraging and that dispersal and environmental factors more strongly determine their distributions. These species show sympatry in this region but evidence for syntopy was rare.