Sea turtles use their flippers to swim around as they peruse the marine environment. On the other hand, new research published in the journal PeerJ this week by researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium highlights how these animals use their flippers for other purposes as well.
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While analyzing many crowdsourced photos of sea turtles, the researchers discerned a peculiar behavior that popped up from time to time. As it would seem, the turtles were quite literally grasping at prey with their flippers, almost as if to ‘grab’ it.
So what were they grabbing for? It depends on what’s around them. In some photos, sea turtles were snatching onto jellyfish with both flippers; in others, they’d use one flipper to scrape or push against things on the seafloor to capture anemones or scallops.
"Sea turtles' limbs have evolved mostly for locomotion, not for manipulating prey," said study lead author Jessica Fujii. "But that they're doing it anyway suggests that, even if it's not the most efficient or effective way, it's better than not using them at all."
Researchers hadn’t known about this type of behavior in sea turtles before this study. However, it’s well-known that unrelated marine tetrapods, such as manatees and seals, exhibit comparable behavior.
"Sea turtles don't have a developed frontal cortex, independent articulating digits or any social learning," added Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Director of Science. "And yet here we have them 'licking their fingers' just like a kid who does have all those tools. It shows an important aspect of evolution - that opportunities can shape adaptations."
Sea turtles aren’t raised by their parents, and so they aren’t taught how to do this by their parental units. With that in mind, this is something they’re learning to do on their own. The research underscores that there’s more to sea turtles than meets the eye at first glance. In fact, this behavior may date back up to 70 million years and went unnoticed until just now.
The researchers hope that better understanding this behavior in sea turtles will help them study similar actions in other marine tetrapods. Perhaps future studies will provide more clarity into the various ways sea turtles use their flippers.