World-First Footage Shows How A Flatback Turtle Handles A Shark Attack

Narrator: It was at this point the flatback knew it'd messed up. Hounslow et al. Murdoch University

The first known footage showing a turtle's-eye-view of coming under attack from a shark has been captured. You might think a turtle versus shark battle would have an obvious winner, but our scrappy shelled videographer refuses to go down without a fight.

Gathered by researchers from Murdoch University’s Harry Butler Institute and Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation & Attractions (WA DBCA), the footage is the first of its kind in showing what a shark attack looks like from a turtle’s perspective, and was published in the journal Ecology.

The assailant is a tiger shark, which is considered by many to be the world's most dangerous shark after the great white. These large predators can reach up to 5 meters (16 feet) in length and will try to eat just about anything (take a look inside their mouth), from other sharks and armored sea turtles to bits of junk on the seafloor.

In the video, we see the flatback turtle clock the tiger shark’s position shortly before it darts towards it. Rather than fleeing or recoiling, the flatback turtle turns its head towards the approaching shark and takes a series of aggressive biting lunges towards its attacker. Despite its ferocious reputation, the tiger shark apparently decides that this particularly riled up snack isn’t worth the effort as the turtle’s aggressive actions successfully deter the shark. As the shark gives up, the turtle makes a high-speed escape with the small folds on its neck shaking as it pulses through the water.

The one-of-a-kind footage shows that contemporary technologies have a place in the study of animal behavior. The characteristic hard shell of sea turtles protects these animals from predation as they bob around the ocean, but footage of this kind shows that they aren’t passive victims that opt to hide at the first sign of trouble. As the video reveals, they can in fact successfully defend themselves by launching a counterattack on approaching sharks.

“This new technology offers us unparalleled insight into what these turtles do when they are at sea away from their nesting beaches, which represents the largest portion, yet most poorly understood, aspect of their lives,” said lead researcher Dr Sabrina Fossette from WA DBCA in a statement.

“We suspect the aggressive behaviour is simply a means to reduce the chances of being eaten when the shell does not offer full protection. On this occasion, the turtle was able to escape the shark unscathed," added PhD candidate on the study Jenna Hounslow.

The footage was made possible using a novel technology called “smart tag” that the researchers compare to attaching a Go-Pro to a Fitbit. The resulting data gives a visual and quantitative analysis of the focus animal’s movement. The footage forms part of a larger body of work at the WA DBCA Marine Science Program, in conjunction with the Yawuru Joint Management program. The project aims to investigate turtle foraging behavior in Roebuck Bay in Western Australia to try and fill in the gaps in our understanding of how flatback turtles return to their feeding grounds each year.


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