Sea turtles are migratory marine reptiles whose ancestors have inhabited earth's oceans since the late Triassic Period (about 205 million years before present). All species of sea turtles face extinction, mostly due to human causes. Five species can be found in Georgia's marine waters, with loggerheads being most abundant, and all five species are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Georgia's Sea Turtles
In winter, most sea turtle species dwell in warm tropical waters. During the months of late spring, summer, and early autumn, the species listed below are known either to inhabit or to traverse Georgia's waters. Since official records were initiated in 1964, all of Georgia's coastal counties have had reports of nesting and/or strandings of one or more of these species. All hold state and/or federal status as threatened or endangered.
Loggerhead, Caretta caretta: Georgia's most common nesting sea turtle; found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.
Leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea: Global distribution, perhaps the most widely distributed reptile on the planet; tolerates colder waters. They are the largest of all sea turtles and can reach nearly six feet in length.
Green, Chelonia mydas: Occasionally found in Georgia waters; found primarily in tropical zones of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.
Kemp's Ridley, Lepidochelys kempii: Found primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, though juveniles are found in the Atlantic Ocean during warm months.
Hawksbill, Eretmochelys imbricata: Found mostly in tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans; rarely sighted in Georgia, but two carcasses were found in 1998.
General Life Cycle
Except for their incubation period, male sea turtles spend their entire lives swimming and floating at sea. Females come ashore only to nest. Due to this "invisibility," many aspects of sea turtle life cycles remain unknown.
Mating usually occurs offshore in shallow waters. A pregnant female will lumber ashore at night to lay her clutch of eggs, depositing them in a cavity dug with her hind feet. Clutch size can range from 80 to more than 100 eggs, and a single pregnant loggerhead female can lay an average of four nests per season. Assuming that no predators consume the eggs, tiny hatchlings struggle out of their sandy nests after fifty to eighty days.
Georgia's Conservation Efforts
The main threats to Georgia sea turtles are nest predation by hogs, raccoons, and dogs, and drowning as bycatch in longline and shrimping nets. To avoid nest predation, researchers in the past would relocate nests to protected hatchery areas. However, it has been observed that temperature
In 2008 the University of Georgia's Marine Extension Program, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources collaborated in a project to increase sea turtle survival, working together to tag turtles for research and collect blood samples for testing. According to these researchers, the population of the sea turtles increased by 3 percent between 2000 and 2008.
If you find a turtle carcass, witness nesting behavior, or observe someone injuring or killing these protected animals, contact the local Department of Natural Resources office. These ancient animals, whose life cycles and ecological functions are still so little known, are fascinating manifestations of our earth's rich biodiversity.
Carol Ruckdeschel and C. Robert Shoop, Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006).
Christine Laporte Gardiner, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.