In neighborhoods and on playgrounds everywhere, kids play the game of tag. It's a tradition; someone has to be "It" and everyone else runs away until a new It is tagged. Tagging and being tagged is part of a human childhood. And now, at least for one little loggerhead, it's part of a turtle childhood as well.
Not the game of course. Tag has a different meaning altogether in the warm Pacific waters. Back in early April, a juvenile loggerhead turtle was caught accidentally by a Coast Guard ship off the coast of San Diego and brought to the Aquarium of the Pacific to be checked out. The aquatic veterinarians there cleared the little guy medically and decided that his unplanned stopover might also be an opportunity to learn more about the species.
What makes the tagging of this particular turtle special is that it was the first time researchers were able to fit a juvenile turtle with a satellite tag and release it back into the Pacific Ocean. Other species of sea turtles have been tagged off Florida and the Carolinas, but this loggerhead was a West Coast first.
There are a couple of reasons it's been difficult to tag the baby turtles. First, while researchers know that the waters near this part of Southern California often have loggerheads swimming about, when they are young, they are difficult to spot, so not much is known about what kind of habitat they call home. In addition, it's only been in the last few years that the data transmitting tags scientists use to track sea turtles have been small enough to fit on the younger members of the species.
NOAA Fisheries scientists Tomo Eguchi and Jeff Seminoff were in charge of releasing the male juvenile back into the sea and in statement issued by NOAA they explained that these turtles are sometimes caught up in swordfish nets, leading researchers to surmise that they often shared the same habitat as the swordfish. To protect them, NOAA Fisheries created a safe haven called the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area.
When the weather gets warmer and ocean temperatures rise, NOAA will often close the area to swordfishing. If more was known about their migration patterns in the "lost years" of the turtle's younger life, it's possible that NOAA would not have to close the fishing grounds as often, or be better able to tell when a closure is actually necessary.
"If it turns out that the turtles like different habitat than swordfish, or if they use the same habitat but at different times, then there might be a way to allow fishermen to fish while still keeping turtle hotspots protected," Seminoff said. "It would be a win-win."?
For now though, the little loggerhead leader is sending back data to scientists that will tell them of his journey. Where he goes, how long it takes to get there and perhaps even who he meets along the way, if he should run into other tagged species. While childhood playground games do not often resemble the world of marine biology in this case, at least for the next four to five months (after which the transmitter will likely fall off)this trailblazing turtle is definitely "It."
Check out the video below to see how researchers tagged sea turtles in Florida in much the same way.
I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.