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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 340:287-298 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps340287

Overwintering behaviour in sea turtles: dormancy is optional

Sandra Hochscheid1,3,*, Flegra Bentivegna1, Mohamed N. Bradai2, Graeme C. Hays3

1Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Villa Comunale 1, 80121 Naples, Italy
2Institut National des Sciences et Technologies de la Mer, Centre de Sfax, BP 1035, Sfax 3018, Tunisia
3Department of Biological Sciences, Institute of Environmental Sustainability, University of Wales Swansea, Singleton Park, Swansea SA2 8PP, UK

ABSTRACT: Thirteen loggerhead turtles Caretta caretta were released (10 from Naples, Italy, 2 from Monastir, Tunisia, 1 from Gallipoli, South Italy) with satellite relay data loggers (SRDL) to elucidate their overwintering behaviour. Nine turtles were successfully tracked throughout the winter, while 4 SRDLs failed to transmit after short deployment periods. Of these 9, 4 remained within 80 km of the release site, 3 travelled to a distant overwintering site, and 2 continued to move and did not remain within 80 km of a specific site. Apart from these differences, all turtles stayed near the coast and dedicated most of their time to dives lasting 3 h and longer. Maximum dive durations ranged from 270 to 480 min and were highly correlated with water temperatures, which fell below the supposed 15°C threshold for sea turtle hibernation in all overwintering sites. Median dive depths were between 4 and 24 m and were, thus, well within the mixed layer, as revealed by temperature profiles, which also were relayed by the SRDLs. No evidence was found that the turtles preferred warmer temperatures to overwinter in, because the range of temperature was very narrow on both the horizontal and the vertical scale of their movements. Despite the long resting phases and the low temperatures (minimum = 11.8°C) all turtles retained activity to some degree, at least to commute between the depth of resting and the surface to breathe. While the degree of winter dormancy is certainly affected by temperature, turtles were by no means obligatory hibernators, and their ability to move and even forage during the winter may be important for their growth and maturation rates, as well as their reproductive output.

KEY WORDS: Caretta caretta · Hibernation · Seasonal · Diving behaviour · Temperature · Satellite tracking

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