A study conducted by the small non-profit Florida Leatherbacks Inc. was initially designed to monitor leatherback turtles at some of Florida’s most dense nesting beaches. Volunteers gather to survey the beach at night during nesting season and tag nesting females to monitor trends in populations. But this year presented a different host of challenges as Hurricane Florence built momentum and barreled into the southeastern seaboard last week.
The team found themselves asking a different question: how do turtles respond to extreme weather events?
“We didn’t intend to monitor the impacts of a hurricane but she just happened to be in the area when Hurricane Florence passed through, which gave us the unique opportunity to follow her through it,” researcher Kelly Martin told IFLScience.
You can follow Isla's progress as she weathers the storm here.
Annually, sea turtles lay hundreds of eggs to help offset the impacts of severe weather like hurricanes.
“Sea turtles evolved with hurricanes so for the most part, they are designed to handle the effects of weather,” explained Martin. “Often times, the biggest impact we see is to nests that are still incubating on beaches. If a storm causes flooding or beach erosion, this can impact nests.”
For the mature leatherbacks that make their way as far north as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Canada, scientists found they have a pretty simple strategy for keeping their cool in the face of a storm: don’t change the plan.
“Our experience has been that sea turtles don’t typically alter their behavior much during severe weather,” said Martin, who said this was evident by one turtle – nicknamed Isla – whose behavior didn’t change throughout Florence. Researchers found Isla continued her normal movement since the storm moved into the area. After the storm, she moved slightly north and is now located 43 miles (70 kilometers) off Virginia Beach.
Because they are air-breathing animals, leatherbacks need to come up for air, something large waves could have a “slight impact” on, but the type of transmitter used to track them doesn’t give researchers any hints into how that might be.
Martin says sea turtles serve as an indicator species and help offer insights into the health of oceans that ultimately will impact human life.
“Sea turtles have been around for more than 200 million years. In many places, sea turtle populations are facing rapid decline and this is due to man-made effects,” said Martin, who explained that large turtles help maintain reef ecosystems, keep grass beads healthy, and provide nutrient sources for local beaches that help prevent erosion.
“These play a huge role in the overall ecosystem and our livelihood. Studies like ours give us detailed knowledge of the population and its trends. Our tracking program tells us where these turtles are and what some high-risk areas might be,” explained Martin. “These studies help us put management actions in place to maintain the health of the population.”