Working together to protect sea turtles and their habitats worldwide...

7 Mysteries

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Sea turtles have been cultural icons since the early days of humankind. Newspaper, magazine, and online articles about sea turtle-related topics appear almost ever day. Yet despite this attention, the natural history of the sea turtle is riddled with unanswered questions.

In August 2006, the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group gathered in Washington, D.C. to better characterize the unknown in sea turtle science. Aptly named Unsolved Mysteries, their questions are meant to provide a framework for focusing scientific progress, intellectual investigation, and investment in global research.

MYSTERY #1: Where do sea turtles spend their first years of life?

The moment hatchlings dive headfirst into the sea, they embark on a mysterious journey into the open ocean fraught with hazards, not to be seen again for several years. Where they go and how they get there remains a great mystery and unveiling the details of this enigmatic period is essential to reducing mortality during their vulnerable first years.

MYSTERY #2: What are the ecological roles of sea turtles, and how many are needed to fulfill those roles?

Marine ecosystems are intricate webs of life, with each species dependent on others for survival. Relatively little is known about the complex parts that sea turtles play in the global marine ecosystem. Unraveling their roles as consumers, producers, predators, and prey is vital to understanding why and how to protect them from extinction.

MYSTERY #3: What proportion of male to female sea turtles is necessary to maintain a healthy population?

Conservation priorities are based upon how healthy and stable a population is. For sea turtles, it is still unknown what constitutes a healthy population. Understanding the proportion of males to females necessary for a population to stabilize and grow will help guide conservation efforts on a global scale.

MYSTERY #4: How do sea turtles sense their environment?

Marine turtles can locate translucent jellyfish at the surface of the ocean and identify sharks as potential predators. How they accomplish these feats is still largely unknown. Understanding sea turtles’ basic sensory abilities will aid in mitigating many of the hazards they face around the world.

MYSTERY #5: How do sea turtles navigate?

Sea turtles traverse the globe, crossing entire ocean basins to locate feeding and mating grounds. Many return to the exact beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs. Just how they navigate the seas, seeming to know exactly how, when, and where to go, is a mystery that continues to elude scientists and conservationists.

MYSTERY #6: What causes fibropapillomas?

Fibropapillomas represent a pandemic of tumorous growths on sea turtle populations from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The cause of this debilitating, often fatal illness and the reason for its rapid spread around the world is one of the areas of greatest concern for researchers and conservationists.

MYSTERY #7: How will climate change affect sea turtles?

Climate change threatens to alter the world in unpredictable ways, and globally migrating sea turtles are no exception. Potential consequences for sea turtles range from changes in population structure (the sex of hatchlings is dependent on incubation temperature) to loss of nesting beaches as sea levels rise.