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ESR 10:215-232 (2010)  -  DOI:

Identification of high-use internesting habitats for eastern Pacific leatherback turtles: role of the environment and implications for conservation

George L. Shillinger1,*, Alan M. Swithenbank1, Steven J. Bograd2, Helen Bailey2, Michael R. Castelton1, Bryan P. Wallace3, James R. Spotila4, Frank V. Paladino5, Rotney Piedra6, Barbara A. Block1

1Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, Pacific Grove, California 93950, USA
2NOAA/NMFS/SWFSC/Environmental Research Division, Pacific Grove, California 93950, USA
3Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International, Arlington, Virginia 22202, USA
4Department of Bioscience and Biotechnology, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA
5Department of Biology, Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46805, USA
6Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía, Apartado 10104-1000, San José, Costa Rica

ABSTRACT: The numbers of leatherback turtles Dermochelys coriacea in the eastern Pacific Ocean have declined by up to 90% in the past 2 decades. Initially, egg harvesting was determined to be the largest causative factor, but now that this has been eliminated, high estimated adult mortality from fisheries bycatch poses the single greatest threat to this population. During the nesting season, adult female leatherback turtles nest multiple times and occupy coastal marine habitats near their nesting beaches. In this study, we characterize the interannual variability of high-use internesting habitats used by 44 (out of 46 total) female leatherback turtles that were satellite-tagged at Playa Grande, Costa Rica, from 2004 to 2007. A total of 1135 d of internesting movements were recorded across 3 tracking years. The core 25% utilization distribution (UD) remained predominantly centered within the marine protected area, Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas (PNMB). The turtles generally dispersed in a northward or southward direction over the shallow continental shelf framing Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. However, there was considerable interannual variation in the shape and area of the larger UD polygons, which was driven by variability in the thermal environment. The maximum swimming speeds and distance traveled from the nesting beach occurred during 2007. Significantly deeper and longer dive durations to cooler temperatures also occurred in this year, which may have been in response to the warming trend from the south driven by the strong Costa Rica Coastal Current. Our findings, therefore, validate the importance of PNMB as a critical habitat for internesting leatherback turtles, but also suggest that a latitudinal expansion of the park is warranted.

KEY WORDS: Conservation · Costa Rica · Dermochelys coriacea · Diving behavior · Marine Spatial Planning · Marine turtles · Satellite tracking

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Cite this article as: Shillinger GL, Swithenbank AM, Bograd SJ, Bailey H and others (2010) Identification of high-use internesting habitats for eastern Pacific leatherback turtles: role of the environment and implications for conservation. Endang Species Res 10:215-232.

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