Archive for March, 2011

Here Come the Giants!

Monday, March 28th, 2011

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Return of the Leviathans!

Each spring brings the return of giant leatherback sea turtles to Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts.  These massive sea turtles, an anachronistic relic of prehistoric times and the most massive living reptile on Planet Earth, are a globally endangered species listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.  Adults can reach more than 8 feet in length and 2000 pounds in weight.  According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The leatherback is the largest, deepest diving, and most migratory and wide ranging of all sea turtles.”

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Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

Leatherbacks achieve this massive size by feasting on a diet almost exclusively composed of jellyfish.  They follow jellyfish blooms across the Seven Seas.  In Buzzards Bay, the attractive prey that entices leatherbacks to return each year is lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata). 

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Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata)

So, each spring the Turtle Journal team watches the shores of Buzzards Bay for the first appearance of a lion’s mane bloom, which presages the arrival of our favorite leviathans.  Today, ten days later than last year, the first lion’s manes appeared along Silvershell Beach in Marion.  Now that Buzzards Bay is filling with lion’s mane jellyfish, we can anticipate the arrival of the season’s first repitilian leviathans in a matter of weeks.

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Lion’s Mane Jellyfish in Buzzards Bay

If jellyfish are the breakfast, lunch and dinner of these giants, how are leatherback sea turtles configured to exploit this unusual diet to gain such massive sizes?  Since jellyfish congregate in patches amidst the vast empty distances of the oceans, how can leatherbacks take advantage of a good spot when it comes along in their pelagic journeys?


Mouth of a Leatherback Sea Turtle

Look at the the enormous mouth of the leatherback sea turtle and its specilized esophagus lined with long, downward pointing spikes.  For a jellyfish, and anything else that enters, the leatherback GI system is a one way journey downward.  When a leatherback runs into a patch of jellyfish it gorges itself, filling its mouth, esophagus, stomach and intestines with a bulging mass of food.  Another interesting anatomical feature of the leatherback is its enormous liver which processes the generous supply of toxins that it consumes from its jellyfish prey.

First Spotted Turtle of 2011 Field Season

Friday, March 18th, 2011

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Sue Wieber Nourse Examines Male Spotted Turtle

As sure as Saint Patrick drove snakes from the Emerald Isle, as sure as spring equinox arrives each year once rivers of green beer runs dry, a few days of sunshine and 50-degree weather will produce the first basking spotted turtle at Brainard’s Marsh on the South Coast of Massachusetts.  (See Spotted Turtle and Wood Frog Celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, March 18, 2011)

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Large Female Painted Turtles Basking at Local Bog

During the last week we’ve seen painted turtles decorating rocks at our local bogs and on the floating platform at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.  Yesterday, Sue spied two small juvenile spotted turtles sunning on the far, unapproachable banks of the pond at Brainard’s Marsh.

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Spotted Turtle (Clemmys Guttata) 

So, this morning Sue came to Brainard’s Marsh ready for action with a long handled (10 foot) net to snag this handsome dude basking on the bank and to kick off the Turtle Journal’s local research season.  Spotteds are an extremely elusive small fresh water turtle.  For sizing, note the oak leaf in the photograph above with the mature male spotted turtle.

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Carapace of Male Spotted Turtle

This 12-year-old male measured 11.6 centimeters (~ 4.5 inches) straight-line carapace length and 8.7 centimeters (3.4 inches) maximum straight-line width.

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Plastron of Male Spotted Turtles

His plastron measured 9.7 centimeters (3.8 inches) long with a nice male concavity and thick tail.

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Male Spotted Turtle at Brainard’s Marsh

Our lad hit the scales at 211 grams (7.4 ounces) and didn’t need to be marked because he had natural nicks at the 2000 suture and in the 3 marginal.  Some future St. Patrick’s Day researcher may be flummoxed by finding a turtle marked as #2003 in a tiny fresh water pond.  Perhaps, that future researcher will be clever or lucky enough to attritube those marks to a pint (or two) of green beer.

Gopher Turtle Opens the New Research Season

Monday, March 14th, 2011

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Male Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), Naples, FL

For turtle researchers (and Turtle Journal), March can be the cruelest month as we wait for our local turtle species to rise from long winter brumation.  The perfect fix is a trip to the Florida Gulf Coast and a visit with these tank-like gopher tortoises.

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Vanderbilt Beach in Mid-March

As Turtle Journal’s Sue Wieber Nourse walked Vanderbilt Beach in Naples this week and enjoyed the beauty of the Gulf Coast’s wildlife, she encountered a fabulous male gopher tortoise preparing for the spring season.

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Male Gopher Tortoise Plastron

A middle aged turtle of size and stature, he was still a bit chilled by the front that had passed through Florida the end of last week. 

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Left Rear Ped of Male Gopher Tortoise

The close up of his left rear pad made us wonder how different it would be dealing with specimens of this bulk during our research season here in the Great White North.

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Ritz Carlton’s Natures Wonders

Just down the beach from where this gopher tortoise resides in the literally “richest” turtle property in the world, Sue spotted a new addition at the Ritz Carlton’s Natures Wonders display.  Is that a hatchling or perhaps a totem to encourage another record loggerhead nesting season on Vanderbilt Beach?