Turtle Tracks: Meet Florida’s Sea Turtles
By: Carrie Black Finch
Summer is just around the corner; here’s to calm seas, clear water, and lots of sea turtles! Each year from March to October here in South Florida, sea turtles gather off shore from near and far to breed and then make the trek onto our beaches to nest. Sea turtles can travel thousands of miles to return to nest near where they were born and a female sea turtle will lay up to ten nests a season! That’s a lot of work for an animal that spends most of her life floating in the water.
The three main species we see nesting on Florida beaches are loggerheads, greens and leatherbacks (though we get the occasional hawksbill or Kemp’s ridley nest, these species are much rarer on our beaches). The nesting season is staggered between the three species, with leatherbacks showing up first, then loggerheads, and greens being the latest nesters. In June and July, it’s possible to see tracks from all three on our beaches! But which is which?
Researchers and sea turtle monitors can tell which species came up on the beach based on the tracks and nest characteristics left behind. Different species have different gaits when on the beach and different physiological features that allow us to distinguish between their tracks left in the sand.
By far the most common species found nesting on Florida beaches is the loggerhead.
Loggerheads have an “army crawl” gait, using first one front flipper than the other to pull themselves up the beach. Their flippers are shorter in proportion to their bodies than the other species, and they leave behind alternating, comma shaped marks in the sand. The middle of the track is often smooth and flat from their heavy carapace dragging along the sand, although you will sometimes see evidence of drag or push marks from their heavy heads.
Green sea turtles are the next most commonly encountered sea turtle track on the beach, and tend to start nesting later in the season than loggerheads.
Greens are larger than loggerheads and use more of a butterfly stroke, moving both front flippers in unison as they crawl up the beach. Their long front flippers leave parallel marks that are in line with each other and appear straighter then those of the loggerhead—like slashes in the sand. Green sea turtles also have a much longer tail than loggerheads, leaving a distinctive drag mark in the middle of their track.
Leatherback tracks are unmistakable due to their size. Leatherback tracks can be over 7 feet across, much wider than the tracks left by an ATV, and can look almost like a track from a piece of heavy equipment!
Like green sea turtles, leatherbacks move their front flippers in unison, so the flipper marks left behind are in line with each other. Because leatherbacks are so large and have the greatest flipper length to body ratio of any species of turtles, their tracks look almost like a double track, with marks from both the front a back flippers more clearly visible than either the loggerhead or green. Leatherbacks are also more prone to wandering the beaches, rather than heading straight up to nest, so their tracks may curve and meander a bit more than other species.
As we head into the peak of sea turtle nesting season remember these tips:
- If you encounter a nesting sea turtle, give her space! Sea turtles are easily spooked and may leave the beach without nesting if disturbed. This can be dangerous for the mother, as it takes lots of energy for her to come up onto the beach, and they are susceptible to exhaustion during this time.
- Don’t use white lights on the beach during nesting season.
- Never take flash photography.
- If you encounter hatchlings, don’t touch them or try to help them to the water. Their first trip down the beach is important for their developing muscles and their sense of direction, and hatchlings may disorient if disturbed.
- Report disoriented hatchlings (those found far from the water and travelling in the wrong direction).
- Remember, not all turtles belong in the water! Gopher tortoises, another protected species, are sometimes mistakenly released in lakes or at the beach, which can be deadly for the tortoises, as they don’t swim. It’s always better to call and report a suspected disoriented turtle than it is to attempt to release it yourself, which may be illegal depending on the species!