Forensic scientists aren’t the only ones using fingerprints to solve mysteries. Marine biologists have also begun “fingerprinting” baby leatherback sea turtles to gather clues about their life history, mating strategies, and family groups.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, federal researchers are taking DNA samples from the baby sea turtles as they hatch to try to unlock some of those secrets. The data they recover will hopefully show them where to focus conservation efforts and reveal what threats might be population specific.
“Hidden in a hatchling’s DNA is its entire family history, including who its mother is, who its father is, and to what nesting population it belongs,” NOAA scientist Peter Dutton explained in an article on the NOAA Fisheries website. “By applying DNA fingerprinting, we can answer many elusive questions about sea turtle mating and reproduction patterns.”
Scientists are particularly interested in learning how long it takes leatherbacks to mature. To gather that information, scientists will wait for female turtles they “fingerprinted” as babies to return to the beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs. Then, with the DNA already collected, the researchers will be able to do the subtraction and figure out how old leatherback turtles have to be to reproduce.
“If indeed it takes decades for leatherbacks to reach sexual maturity, then we might not see the recent effects of climate change (beach warming) reflected in the population until today’s young female turtles reach maturity and begin breeding,” Dutton said. “Once we crack the code on maturity age, we may find that the shift to fewer males will happen sooner than expected.”
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Sea turtle sex is determined by the temperature of the sand as they’re developing in their eggs. Warmer temperatures produce more females and cooler temperatures produce more males. A greater proportion of either sex being born could have a profound impact on populations.
Fortunately, NOAA’s brave sea turtle detectives are on the case.