As the world stays at home to slow the spread of coronavirus, turtle hatchlings are benefiting in a big way from the lack of people crowding onto nesting beaches.
These are some strange and troubling times. We are currently in the midst of a global pandemic as the coronavirus spreads across the world, leaving a trail of fear in its wake. As of writing this almost all major countries are in, or going into, a state of lockdown to stop the spread of the virus and save as many lives as possible. Most people are quarantining at home and observing strict social distancing in public, resulting in many popular public spaces becoming completely empty for the first time. This has been a challenging time for us, but it is also providing some much needed respite for nature and one of the big beneficiaries of the global lockdown has been little baby turtles. Reports from around the world suggest that the lack of people on beaches has resulted in an increased number of hatchlings and nesting events.
The life of a sea turtle, especially in its first few weeks, is filled with constant dangers. Hungry seabirds, crashing waves, abundance of underwater predators and living on their own means that even naturally their chances of surviving to adulthood could lie anywhere from 1/100 to 1/1000. This makes it hard enough for turtles to reproduce without any outside interference, but in recent decades multiple human activities has seriously hindered them in a big way.
One of the big problems is that turtle nesting sites are disappearing at an alarming rate. The reason for this is twofold, firstly development of beachside properties and resorts on beaches has increased dramatically and secondly rising sea levels are squeezing beaches from the other side meaning nesting sites are effectively just disappearing. However one of the most immediate problems for nesting turtles is people on beaches. This can either be crowds of enthusiasts gathering to cheer them on, beachgoers taking over nest sites as tourist spots and poachers who steal eggs or the turtles themselves. Luckily though the global lockdown caused by coronavirus could help reduce these problems, even if just for a short time.
Brazilian baby boomers
One of the first places to see a difference was Brazil. Last week photos of around 100 endangered hawksbill turtles, making their way to the sea on a desserted beach near Paulista, made their way online. They were taken by emergency service workers, the only people allowed out in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco. It is believed to be one of the most successful breeding seasons for the hawksbills in Brazil for several years and was almost missed completely as nobody was around to watch them. Normally crowds of people gather to cheer on the hatchlings as they make their way to the sea, but it has also long been suspected to be a stressful experience for the younglings. It is hoped this breeding event could lead to a return of hawksbills in Brazil in greater numbers over the next few years. Green turtles and Olive Ridley’s have also been seen hatching successfully on other Brazilian beaches this week.
Daytime egg laying
The most significant change in behaviour has been seen in India along the Odisha coastline. In particular the government run Rushikulya rookery where around 70,000 Olive Ridley turtles showed up to lay their eggs. Normally security services have to keep back spectators who are desperate to see this incredible natural phenomenon, but with a 21-day lockdown in place across India there were no such problems this year. As a result, for the first time in seven years, the Olive Riley’s were able to nest during the day time rather than during the dark to avoid turtles. Over half the worlds population nest along the Odisha coastline and it is believed in total over 400,000 of them have laid around 60 million eggs there this year. This was a fantastic news considering their breeding season was almost entirely interrupted last year due to Cyclone Titli. It shows that given space these animals have a fantastic capacity to rebound and return to their natural behaviours.
A good year all round?
These initial reports suggest that, at least for now, 2020 is likely to be a record year for turtle reproduction in terms for number of eggs laid and hopefully proportion of hatchlings that survive to adulthood. In uncertain times for most marine animals this could come as a much needed helping hand, but will it keep going. Not all of the six sea turtle species hatch during spring. Loggerhead turtles for example lay their eggs between April and Spetember, so if the global lockdown is lifted in the next month or so, they may not see the same level of success. Especially in there is an influx of people heading to the beach when they can finally go outside. It will be very interesting to see the difference between species if this does happen and it could shine more light on the effects of human interference on turtle hatchings that could be very beneficial in the future.
Studying the rebound
It is important to note that none of these reports of hatchling success have been scientifically verified. Whilst it would be great if what we are seeing is true, we also have to be careful not to jump to conclusions about what is happening. It will take time for researchers to sort through the stats and determine if there has been a real change, and if that change is definitely as a result of less people on beaches. However if less people on beaches really does help turtle hatchlings it could result in some serious changes in how we help conserve their numbers. As time passes and we eventually move past the coronavirus pandemic, it will also be fascinating to see what other natural benefits can be found across the marine environment. It could open up a whole new area of research for marine biologists and other environmental scientists to gauge the unseen effects we have on our planet for the first real time.