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Researchers are ‘fingerprinting’ baby sea turtles. Here’s what they hope to learn

There are a lot of things scientists still don’t know about sea turtles. But researchers are starting to “fingerprint” leatherback sea turtle hatchlings to try to unlock some of those secrets.

Federal researchers plan to take DNA samples from the baby sea turtles as they hatch to figure out more about their history, family groups and mating, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The project is similar to humans getting DNA tests so they can learn about their genealogy.

“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 said. “By applying DNA fingerprinting, we can answer many elusive questions about sea turtle mating and reproduction patterns.”

One thing scientists do know is that the temperature of the sand determines the sex of sea turtle hatchlings. Warmer sand means more female babies, according to NOAA.

But researchers don’t even know how old endangered leatherback sea turtles have to be before they can reproduce, and what climate change and warming beaches could mean for mating sea turtles.

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NOAA

Dutton, who studies leatherback sea turtle DNA, said, “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.”

“Once we crack the code on maturity age, we may find that the shift to fewer males will happen sooner than expected,” Dutton said.

According to NOAA, “This is a critical stage in a turtle’s life history and plays a role in understanding how species respond to and recover from disturbance or decline. For the leatherback — the only sea turtle that lacks a hard shell — scientists have a wide range of estimates, but no empirical evidence or direct observations, for how long it may take them to reach adulthood.”

NOAA researchers are collecting the DNA of sea turtle hatchlings between when they hatch on the beach and when they get in the ocean and swim away, according to NOAA.

The scientists will wait for one of these baby turtles to return to the beach where she hatched to lay her own eggs. Then, with the DNA already collected from years before, the researchers will be able to do the subtraction and figure out how old leatherback turtles have to be to to reproduce.

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Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.
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