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Virginia Refuge Supports Nesting Sea Turtles
by Nicole Dewberry
Photo Credit: USFWS
At midnight, a 35-year-old female loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) crawls out of the ocean and onto the beach. Right, left...right, left, she moves her rear legs to scoop a flaskshaped hole, and lays her very first nest of just over 100 eggs at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach.
Virginia is at the northern range of sea turtle nesting habitat. Since a sea turtle nest is an unusual find for Back Bay, biologists take the opportunity to meticulously record data from each one. Just a few examples of their data include the length and width of the female's crawl prints, dimensions of the body pit she created while laying the eggs, and the distance between the nest and the dunes. This, in part, provides information on the age and type of sea turtle that laid the nest. Refuge biologists share their data with partners across the southeastern coast.
Egg shell genetics data from these nests as well as other loggerhead nests along the coast is being analyzed by Dr. Campbell Nairn and Brian Shamblin of the University of Georgia. Their initial results imply that nesting loggerhead females may not be as faithful at returning to the same beach they previously nested on; changing what scientists earlier thought.
Photo Credit: USFWS
"Finding a sea turtle nest here is a memorable and exciting experience," says John Gallegos, senior wildlife biologist at Back Bay NWR. "When we have one, we employ a proactive protocol aimed at helping the species recover."
Refuge staff and volunteers patrol the surrounding beaches daily between May and August to look for crawls during nesting season. Is the nest located above the high tide line, away from vehicles or public recreation? If so then the nest is left where it was laid, in-situ. If not then the nest may be lost, and the eggs and sand that surround them are relocated to Back Bay's "nursery."
For 30 years the refuge has taken a hands-on management approach to help increase the number of hatchlings that make it safely to the ocean. Once it is time for the eggs to hatch, refuge staff and volunteers create a funnel to the ocean, with panels on both sides, to keep the hatchlings in and predators out.
"All of this ensures that as many hatchlings get into the ocean as possible," Gallegos says.
As the refuge prepares for this year's nesting season, last year will be a tough one to beat. The 11 sea turtle nests found and recorded by biologists in 2012 is now the record for the refuge and the city of Virginia Beach.
Nicole Dewberry, a volunteer for the Service's Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Massachusetts, can be reached at email@example.com.
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