On the dispersal of leatherback turtle hatchlings from Mesoamerican nesting beaches

George L. Shillinger, Emanuele Di Lorenzo, Hao Luo, Steven J. Bograd, Elliott L. Hazen, Helen Bailey, James R. Spotila

Abstract

So little is known about the early life history of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) from hatchling to adulthood that this period has been termed the ‘lost years’. For critically endangered eastern Pacific leatherback populations, continued and rapid declines underscore the urgent need to develop conservation strategies across all life stages. We investigate leatherback hatchling dispersal from four Mesoamerican nesting beaches using passive tracer experiments within a regional ocean modelling system. The evolution of tracer distribution from each of the nesting beaches showed the strong influence of eddy transport and coastal currents. Modelled hatchlings from Playa Grande, Costa Rica, were most likely to be entrained and transported offshore by large-scale eddies coincident with the peak leatherback nesting and hatchling emergence period. These eddies potentially serve as ‘hatchling highways’, providing a means of rapid offshore transport away from predation and a productive refuge within which newly hatched turtles can develop. We hypothesize that the most important leatherback nesting beach remaining in the eastern Pacific (Playa Grande) has been evolutionarily selected as an optimal nesting site owing to favourable ocean currents that enhance hatchling survival.

  • Received November 15, 2011.
  • Accepted February 6, 2012.
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