17 August 2011

Turtle Watch: Lookout for the Leatherback!

Froglife is supporting appeals by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) for the public to report sightings of one of our most iconic and critically endangered reptiles, the leatherback turtle. August is the peak time to spot them in UK waters, and with fewer than 20 reports annually since 2007 (reports were typically in the 70s prior to this), the MCS wants to hear about every sighting, in order to identify hotspots and implement targeted conservation measures.
Froglife Friend Francesca Barker with a Leatherback turtle in Guatalmala
Weighing up to a tonne, the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest of all living sea turtles, and the fourth largest reptile in the world behind three crocodilian species. They are also unique amongst reptiles in their ability to maintain body temperature through metabolically generated heat (endothermy). Other reptiles rely on external means of heat production (ectothermy), which is why our other native reptiles are often found basking in the sun. After the nesting season (March-July), leatherbacks leave their Caribbean breeding areas and many begin the 6000km migration to UK foraging waters, arriving through August and September.

“It seems to be a good summer to spot leatherback turtles in UK waters as we have had six reports of turtles in as many days making up about 20 records since June.” Explains Dr Peter Richardson, Biodiversity Programme Officer at MCS. “They are not easy to spot, but in the last few days we have had confirmed sightings from Selsey Bill in Sussex, Laugharne Sands near Swansea, Newport in North Pembrokeshire, two off Anglesey and one spotted at Gairloch in the West Highlands,” adds Peter. “The more reports of sightings we receive, the more we begin to understand about these critically endangered reptiles when they visit our seas.”

Where leatherback turtles face extinction in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Atlantic populations seem to be increasing, according to the MCS, possibly as a result of the increased conservation efforts on turtle nesting beaches.

Of the seven species of marine turtle swimming the world’s oceans, five species have been recorded in UK and Irish waters including the loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). Unlike our native leatherback however, these turtles prefer warmer climates and only occur here as weather blown strays.

 You can support our work conserving reptiles and amphibians and reptiles for as little as £1.50 a month. Sign up as a Froglife Friend and help save species and habitats here.

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