Migratory activity by hatchling loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta carettaL.): evidence for divergence between nesting groups

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Abstract

The South Florida subpopulation of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta L.) nests with great fidelity on either the southeast or the southwest coast of Florida, USA. The hatchlings that emerge from those nests must swim in opposite directions and search for different surface currents to migrate away from continental shelf waters. In this laboratory study, we compared the pattern of swimming activity shown by the hatchlings from each coast over the first 6 days of migration. Turtles from both coasts were equally active during their “frenzy” period (the first 24 h of swimming) and during the daylight hours of the 5 days that followed (the “postfrenzy” period). However, the west coast turtles were significantly more active than the east coast turtles during the nocturnal portion of the postfrenzy period. This difference may be related to the greater distance southwest coast turtles must negotiate to locate surface currents for transport out of the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic Ocean basin. These differing behavioral strategies may be genetically determined, as similar correspondence between activity and distance is well known among migratory populations of birds and fish and is often based upon inherited programs of endogenously driven activity. Alternatively, behavioral differences between the two nesting groups could be a manifestation of phenotypic plasticity that arises as the hatchlings respond to unique environmental cues on each coast.

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