Sea Turtles

Sea Turtle Research and Conservation
Genia handling a green sea turtle

Dr. Eugenia Naro-Maciel handling a green sea turtle in Hawai'i.

Katherine McFadden

The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation's Sea Turtle Research and Conservation program bridges the fields of genetics, ecology, and education to advance research and protection of globally endangered sea turtles, also known as marine turtles, and their ecosystems. Founded and led by Center for Biodiversity and Conservation researcher Dr. Eugenia Naro-Maciel, this program takes an interdisciplinary approach, focusing on: sea turtles of the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, conservation genetics, and conservation applications through education and outreach.

Sea Turtles of the World
Green sea turtle Palmyra Atoll

Green sea turtle, Palmyra Atoll. © Dan Brumbaugh

The world's oceans and seas cover about three-quarters of the planet's surface, and contain much of our threatened biodiversity. Currently, marine organisms and ecosystems are under intense stress, resulting in the disruption of fundamental ecological processes and biodiversity loss worldwide. Throughout their highly migratory life cycles, endangered sea turtles play important ecological roles in many of these ecosystems. After hatching from eggs on nesting beaches, young sea turtles disperse into the ocean. As juveniles, some species leave the oceanic environment and move to coastal feeding grounds. Adults undertake breeding migrations between feeding grounds and nesting areas that may be thousands of kilometers apart, and many females return to nest in the vicinity of their natal beach. These charismatic animals have long been important elements of diverse cultures, and continue to endear themselves to many people today. Their conservation can benefit humans as well, for example through ecotourism or environmental employment. Even so, many of these ancient reptiles are now endangered worldwide due to harvest, fisheries interaction, habitat loss, pollution and disease, climate change, and other factors, underscoring the urgency of protecting these iconic and magnificent "ambassadors of the sea."

Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
Sea turtle capture

Sea turtle capture activities at the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Katherine McFadden

Little is known about sea turtles and their habitats at the remote Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (PANWR), located about halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa. Sea turtles at Palmyra forage in a unique environment currently removed from pervasive human influence. Research at Palmyra can expand our knowledge of these reptiles where they are relatively unaffected by people, providing an essential baseline for understanding natural processes, ecological roles, and human impacts. Program goals at Palmyra are to study sea turtle distribution and abundance, focusing on ecological interactions, behavior, conservation, health issues, and connectivity (or migratory linkages to other sites). Key activities have been completed since the program began in 2005, including surveys, sea turtle capture and handling, laboratory and data analysis, and tracking using satellite telemetry.

Conservation Genetics
Genetics Sackler student

Genetic analysis and student training at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics.

Eugenia Naro-Maciel

Protected areas like the PANWR form the cornerstone for conservation planning worldwide; however, protecting an area does not automatically achieve conservation outcomes. Sea turtles and other highly migratory organisms protected in one area may face threats when moving to other localities. Understanding the linkages between groups in protected areas and outside them is key to effective conservation. We are therefore investigating the population distribution of highly migratory sea turtles throughout the world's oceans. Identifying migratory connections is particularly challenging in the case of highly migratory organisms such as sea turtles, which spend much of their lives hidden from view moving throughout the oceans. At the Museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and Center for Conservation Genetics, we are using genetic analysis to understand the connections between sea turtle populations. By determining the unknown linkages between feeding grounds and other regional breeding or feeding sites, we will better understand the range of these turtles, identify regional management partners, and determine conservation priorities.

Education and Outreach
Education and outreach World Water Day

Education and outreach at the Museum's World Water Day Fair.

Denis Finnin / AMNH

Conservation education and outreach are being advanced through training internships, presentations, and scientific and educational publications for a diverse audience. Students of varied backgrounds are trained and advised in genetic techniques, analysis, and data presentation at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. A series of talks about sea turtle research and conservation is being given to students and educators at the Museum and locally in New York. We are also integrating our work into freely available educational materials provided by the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation's Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners. Insights from this research are regularly disseminated through scientific publications and presentations, and conservation is advanced through participation in conservation networks. The educational and outreach aspects of the Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program contribute to broader institutional efforts that enhance public awareness of biodiversity conservation, and are employed around the world to improve conservation training and understanding of biodiversity.

Related Publications
  • Naro-Maciel E., B. Reid, N.N. FitzSimmons, M. Le, R. DeSalle, and G. Amato. In press. DNA barcodes for globally threatened marine turtles: a registry approach to documenting biodiversity. Molecular Ecology Resources
  • Caraccio, M.N., A. Domingo, A. Marquez, E. Naro-Maciel, P. Miller, and A. Pereira. 2008. Las Aguas Del Atlántico Sudoccidental Y Su Importancia En El Ciclo De Vida De La Tortuga Cabezona ( Caretta Caretta ): Evidencias A Través Del Análisis Del ADNmt. Collective Volume of Scientific Papers ICCAT 62(6):1831-1837
  • Naro-Maciel, E. and M. Le, N.N. FitzSimmons, and G. Amato. 2008. Evolutionary relationships of marine turtles: A molecular phylogeny based on nuclear and mitochondrial genes. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 49(2): 659-662
  • Naro-Maciel, E., J.H. Becker, E.H.S.M. Lima, M.A. Marcovaldi, and R. DeSalle. 2007. Testing dispersal hypotheses in foraging green sea turtles of Brazil. Journal of Heredity 98(1): 29-39.
  • Naro-Maciel, E and A. Formia. 2006. Sea turtle sub-populations and the IUCN Red List: A complementary role for conservation genetics. Marine Turtle Newsletter 114: 6-8.
  • Naro-Maciel, E., N. Mrosovsky and M.A. Marcovaldi. 1999. Thermal profiles of sea turtle hatcheries and nesting areas at Praia do Forte, Brazil. Chelonian Conservation and Biology 3(3): 407-413.
  • Naro-Maciel, E. 1998. The Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles: an historical overview. Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy 1 (1): 169-178.
  • Rao, M., E. Naro-Maciel, and E. Sterling. 2009. Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation II: Management and effectiveness - Synthesis, Presentation, Exercise and Instructor's Materials.
  • Naro-Maciel, E., K. Holmes, P.J. Ersts, N. Bynum and E. Sterling. 2009. Globally endangered sea turtles of the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge - Exercise and Instructor's Materials.
  • Naro-Maciel E., A.N. Mihnovets, M. Martin, and K. Durham. In Review. Mysteries of an Ancient Mariner: The Endangered Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle - Case Study.
Publications available from LESSONS IN CONSERVATION
  • Naro-Maciel, E., E. Sterling, and M. Rao. 2009. Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation I: Reserve Planning and Design - Synthesis. Lessons in Conservation - LINC 2: 18-48
  • Naro-Maciel E and D Brumbaugh, with S Phillips. 2009. Marine Reserves and Local Fisheries, An Interactive Simulation Exercise - Exercise and Instructor's Materials. Lessons in Conservation - LINC 2: 49-81
  • Naro-Maciel E. 2009. Designing a Marine Reserve in the Mediterranean. Lessons in Conservation - Exercise and Instructor's Materials. LINC: 83-89