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FAU, FIU and NOAA Biologists Develop New Method to Track Young Sea Turtles

Expanded Data May Offer New Insight into Early Migration Patterns, Threats

BOCA RATON, FL (June 22, 2012) — Jeanette Wyneken, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science at Florida Atlantic University, along with Kate Mansfield, Ph.D., affiliate assistant research professor in the College of Science and a sea turtle biologist and visiting assistant research professor with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Southeast Fisheries Science Center and Florida International University’s College of Arts & Sciences, along with a team of researchers, have developed a safe and reliable method of attaching a satellite tracking tag to sea turtles at a younger age.  Otherwise known as the “lost years,” very little is known about the behavior, movement patterns and habitat use of sea turtles from the time they leave the beaches as hatchlings until they show up again years later in coastal waters as larger juveniles or adults.

“Turtles may spend months or years in an oceanic environment far from land,” said Wyneken, who uniquely merges her expertise in sea turtle anatomy, marine biology and conservation to understand the lives of turtles. “Tracking is the first step toward saving endangered sea turtles because not much is known about how small turtles spend their first weeks at sea. Technology was a real limitation, until now. With this new technique for tagging new turtles, we may increase our knowledge about the threats endangered turtles face and the habitats they need to maintain healthy populations.”

Wyneken and Mansfield sought to develop a minimally-invasive way to adhere a satellite tag to very small sea turtles that could survive the turtles’ rapid growth and the harsh saltwater environment.  Using solar-powered bird tags that are small and light enough not to impair turtles’ movement, Mansfield and Wyneken tested different attachment methods on laboratory-reared sea turtles to ensure minimal impact to the turtles.  The team began by testing marine epoxies and other adhesives typically used to track older, larger sea turtles for one to two years in the open ocean. None of these methods worked on the small, fast-growing loggerhead turtles.  The turtles shed the tag attachments within one to two weeks.

Loggerhead sea turtle shells are made of keratin, which is the same substance as human fingernails. The team discovered that by applying an acrylic base coat — the same product used in nail salons — to the shell, they could seal the keratin on the shells and slow the peeling of the shells during the turtles’ growth.  Using small, solar-powered satellite tags originally used to track birds and a combination of manicure acrylic, hair extension glue, old wetsuits, and aquarium silicone, initial tests revealed that the device remained in place for 60 days without altering the shell underneath.

The tags have been successful in tracking the movements of neonate loggerheads, and researchers obtained the first assessments of the routes and habitats used by young loggerheads leaving Florida’s east coast.  Researchers will now be able to assess where little sea turtles go when they leave the beaches and how those paths differ from among the species. 

“The methods we developed will revolutionize our ability to study the in-water movements and habitat use of very young, very small, oceanic stage sea turtles, a life stage known as the ‘lost years’ due to the lack of information on these young turtles,” said Mansfield, lead author on the publication. “This work allows us to track a whole new size- and age-class of sea turtle. Population models rely heavily on data derived from older turtles or hatchlings that are more accessible to researchers within coastal and beach habitats. Tracking sea turtles during their first year at sea will allow us to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of early sea turtle life history. By identifying the movement patterns and behavior of oceanic stage turtles, we will ultimately be able to identify areas for targeted species management.”

The study results are published in yesterday’s issue of Marine Ecology Progress Series.  For a copy of the study, visit The study was funded by several sources, including the Ashwanden Family Fund, Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, the Sea Turtle Grants Program funded by the sale of Florida’s ”Helping Sea Turtles Survive” specialty license plate, Large Pelagics Research Center grants program, National Academies Research Associateship Program, Nelligan Sea Turtle Fund, NOAA Fisheries, Save Our Seas Foundation and The Philanthropic Collaborative.


About NOAA :
NOAA's mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. On the web: NOAA Fisheries Service, Southeast Regional Office: Like us on Facebook US NOAA FISHERIES GOV Follow us on Twitter @NOAASERfish.

About FIU :
Florida International University is recognized as a Carnegie engaged university. Its colleges and schools  offer more than 180 bachelor's, master's and doctoral programs in fields such as engineering, international relations, architecture, law and medicine. As one of South Florida's anchor institutions, FIU is Worlds Ahead in its local and global engagement, finding solutions to the most challenging problems of our time. FIU emphasizes research as a major component of its mission. It has 160,000 alumni and enrolls 48,000 students in two campuses and three centers including FIU Downtown on Brickell and the Miami Beach Urban Studios. FIU is a member of the Sun Belt Conference and has 400 student-athletes participating in 18 sports. For more information about FIU, visit

Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University serves more than 29,000 undergraduate and graduate students on seven campuses and sites. FAU’s world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information, visit

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