The Lost Years Project: Tracking Young Sea Turtles

October 13, 2015
Aimee Hoover holds up a turtle during a research trip to the Cayman Islands. Photo courtesy of Lauren Cruz.

Chesapeake Biological Laboratory Research Assistant Professor Dr. Helen Bailey and her student Aimee Hoover are working with The Leatherback Trust on a project that investigates the migration of young leatherback sea turtles between when they leave their nesting beach as hatchlings and the time they reach maturity.  This period is known as “the lost years” because even today, not much is known about where turtles travel during this time. Researchers are especially concerned about leatherbacks in the Eastern Pacific Ocean because their numbers have dropped by more than 90% in the last 20 years.

They will use acoustic tags that give off sound signals to track hatchlings when they leave Playa Grande, a beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.  Bailey's team, in collaboration with The Leatherback Trust, will analyze this acoustic tracking data and combine it with information on environmental conditions, including light pollution, to determine the factors affecting the path movements of young turtles.

Having knowledge of the turtles’ movement patterns and where they are caught in fishing gear, especially during the mysterious “lost years” period, will help efforts to reduce potentially harmful impacts of human activities on the already-endangered turtles.  For instance, fishing boats will be able to avoid likely migration paths and reduce the number of turtles that are unintentionally caught in fishing nets.

Bailey plans to use the information gathered to create a children’s book that tells the story of the journey of two young leatherback turtles.

 “We really want to get the word out as much as we can,” she said, explaining how important it is to educate people about this endangered species.

A Baby turtle on the sand. Photo by Jason Bradley

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In January 2015, Bailey, Hoover, and their colleagues published a paper called "Enhancing the TurtleWatch product for leatherback sea turtles, a dynamic habitat model for ecosystem-based management."

Bailey wrote a children's book based on her research called "The Grande Turtle Adventure."