Scientists Track Ancient Mariners

December 23, 2009

Noelle and Darwinia, two leatherback sea turtles from Gabon, are now wearing satellite tracking devices as they swim through the seas, aiding researchers studying the species' movements. Interested members of the public can also keep up with the turtles progress online.

In May 2009, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reported the discovery of the world’s largest nesting population of leatherback sea turtles in the west-central African nation of Gabon. Now, people around the world will be able to follow the journeys of two of those turtles as they travel the oceans, wearing tiny satellite tracking devices.

Noelle and Darwinia, two adult females, have already migrated a collective 800 miles since researchers fitted the pair with the devices on December 7. A team from the University of Exeter in England, WCS, the Government of Gabon, and Seaturtle.org will use the satellite data to monitor Noelle and Darwinia’s precise movements and observe where and how deep they dive in the vast South Atlantic Ocean.

The researchers hope their findings will enable government agencies to protect key areas from the impacts of industrial fishing, oil exploitation, and pollution, all growing threats near the leatherbacks’ nesting beaches in Gabon.

"Sea turtles are the ancient mariners of the world," said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of the WCS-Ocean Giants Program. "Understanding broader migration patterns and use of the nearshore habitat around their nesting beaches is a key component to their conservation."

Populations of leatherbacks in the Indo-Pacific crashed by more than 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as critically endangered, but detailed population assessments in much of the Atlantic, especially Africa, are lacking.

Dr. Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter and a member of the project team explained how the satellite data would aid conservation efforts in Gabon. “Our aim is that this will help inform management of fisheries and mineral exploration as well as feeding into ambitious plans to widen the network of marine protected areas,” he said. “It is only by having detailed information on where these creatures go that we can try to protect them."

The project has been funded by Defra’s Darwin Initiative, which draws on the wealth of biodiversity expertise within the UK to help protect and enhance biodiversity around the world.

Keep up with Noelle and Darwinia
View the turtles’ progress at www.wildlifetracking.org/?project_id=466, where you can also sign up for daily email alerts.


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