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  Which Sea Turtle is the Most Frequent Visitor to North Carolina's Coast?

30 March 1998

 

The loggerhead turtle is the most common sea turtle occurring along our coast. More than 99% of the nesting sea turtles in North Carolina are loggerheads. So named because of their massive head, loggerheads are one of five species of marine turtles that inhabit North Carolina's waters. The other less frequent visitors to our coast include Kemp's ridley, hawksbill, green, and leatherback turtles.

 

Like most sea turtles, loggerheads only come out of the water to nest. Prior to the nesting season, which occurs from late spring through summer, mating takes place offshore, just beyond the surf. The female then lumbers ashore at night in search of a suitable site for her nest. She typically seeks a spot above the high tide line on an isolated beach. Using her rear flippers, she digs a flask-shaped egg chamber where she deposits approximately 100 leathery-shelled, golf ball-sized eggs. She then covers the nest with sand before returning to the sea. A female usually nests every two to three years but she may lay as many as five clutches of eggs during a nesting year.

 

Temperatures play a key role in the development of the eggs. Eggs incubated in cooler sand take longer to develop than those in warmer sand. Temperature even determines the sex of the baby turtles -- eggs in warmer sand produce females, while cooler conditions produce males.

 

After a two month incubation period, the hatchlings break out of their shells and make their way to the sea. These two-inch turtles face many hazards as they make their way across the open beach. Many fall prey to predators such as ghost crabs, gulls, and raccoons. Others may become disoriented by the lights of oceanfront developments or trapped by vehicle tracks in the sand. Weather extremes and storm tides may also hamper their trek to the sea. Those that do reach the water are faced with their natural enemies -- sharks, bluefish, and grouper.

 

What happens to loggerheads once they reach the ocean is still a mystery. Biologists believe that these young turtles spend their first years floating in seaweed mats and feeding on the small invertebrates that live there. As they grow, their diet changes to larger mollusks and crustaceans. Most turtles never make it to adulthood. It is thought that perhaps one out of 1,000 loggerheads live to reproduce.

 

Loggerheads and other sea turtles have roamed the world's oceans for more than 150 million years. Now, however, their survival is threatened by humans. Beachfront development, increased boating and fishing, and pollution all contribute to their declining numbers. All five species of marine turtles found in North Carolina waters are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act as either threatened or endangered.