Sea turtles are fascinating animals. They have a complex life history, from the time they hatch until they reach sexual maturity they may live in several types of habitats, change their diet, and migrate long distances. Hawksbill sea turtles are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (an international governing body related to nature) and comparatively little is known about them. As hatchlings, they scoot their way from the nest to the ocean, trying to avoid predators, and then we presume they move out to live the next few years of their lives in the open pelagic (far from the shore) waters of the ocean, although little has been studied of this part of their lives. They then move to benthic waters (nearer the bottom of the ocean) before becoming more coastal and inhabiting reefs and estuaries. They are very long lived species, and some don’t reach sexual maturity until their 30s. As adults, while they are omnivorous, the majority of their diet is made up of sponges. Hawksbill sea turtles are therefore important to overall coral reef health, as sponges can compete with the organisms that make up coral.
We are only now starting to learn more about the ecology, physiology, and health of hawksbills in the eastern pacific ocean. It appears they tend to not migrate such long distances, and we are currently studying their exposure to toxins from polluted estuaries. They are so highly endangered because their eggs are considered a delicacy and are frequently poached. Additionally they mistake plastic for jellyfish or sponges and often die from impactions, as well as getting caught in fishing lines or nets and drowning. Hawksbill sea turtles are often considered the most beautiful of the sea turtles, and their shells are still used for (illegal) crafts.
All this sounds very dire, but we are working hard with partners in Central America to help monitor the health of sea turtles. They are important as indicators of the environment they live in, economically important for tourism, and can be a public health concern as people consume their eggs and sometimes get diseases, or may be exposed to toxins in the eggs. Since so little is really known about this species, we are spearheading an initiative to learn more about their physiology and health by studying the microbes that live in sea turtles. The microbiome as it is called is the entire community of microbes (bacteria, but also viruses, fungi, and parasites) that live on and in organisms.
The Human Microbiome Project taught us a lot about how important this microbiome is to living things, and we are still learning how the microbiome can influence health or be influenced by outside forces (such as diet, toxins, infections). The gut microbiome in many animals is essential for digestion and even producing some of the nutrients organisms need to survive. As the waters that sea turtles live in become increasingly polluted and the climate changes, the pH, temperature, and even amount of salt in the ocean will change. We have no idea how this will effect the microbiome in sea turtles, or their prey, and therefore affect their basic physiology. We believe it is essential we start studying this now, so we can get a baseline before the ocean changes even more than it already has. We are starting a pilot project this summer, and plan on turning it into a long term project, hopefully spanning decades. We will be working with local NGOs in Central America as well as labs here in the USA to complete this important work. This work will be important for the conservation of this turtle species, but we also hope to turn our research and data analysis into a tool that can be used to monitor other species of animals in order to provide important information on how animals interact with their environment in the rapidly changing world we live in.
We will be launching a crowd funding campaign at the end of this month to raise money for this research. Sign up for our mailing list to be kept in the loop and follow us on twitter for more details. Further blog posts will be coming soon!