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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 422:275-289 (2011)  -  DOI:

Vertical and horizontal habitat preferences of post-nesting leatherback turtles in the South Pacific Ocean

George L. Shillinger1,9,*, Alan M. Swithenbank1, Helen Bailey2,3, Steven J. Bograd2, Michael R. Castelton1, Bryan P. Wallace4,5, James R. Spotila6, Frank V. Paladino7, Rotney Piedra8, Barbara A. Block1

1Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, 120 Oceanview Boulevard, Pacific Grove, California 93950, USA
2NOAA/NMFS/SWFSC/Environmental Research Division, 1352 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, California 93950, USA
3Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, UMCES, Solomons, Maryland 20688, USA
4Global Marine Division, Conservation International, 2011 Crystal Drive, Suite 500, Arlington, Virginia 22202, USA
5Division of Marine Science and Conservation, Duke University Marine Laboratory, Beaufort, North Carolina 28516, USA
6Department of Biology, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA
7Department of Biology, Indiana-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46805, USA
8Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía y Telecomunicaciones, Apartado 10104-1000, San José, Costa Rica
9Present address: Center for Ocean Solutions, 99 Pacific Street, Suite 155A, Monterey, California 93940, USA

ABSTRACT: Leatherback turtles are the largest and widest ranging turtle species, and spend much of their time in the offshore pelagic environment. However, the high seas have thus far received little management attention to protect their ecosystems and biodiversity. We tagged 46 female leatherback turtles with satellite transmitters at Playa Grande, Costa Rica from 2004 to 2007. In the present study, we analyzed the vertical and horizontal habitat preferences of these leatherback turtles in the South Pacific Ocean. The turtles exhibited short, shallow dives during their migration southward (mean depth: 45 m; mean duration: 23.6 min), followed by deeper, longer dives (mean depth: 56.7 m; mean duration: 26.4 min) in the South Pacific Gyre that probably indicated searching for prey. We integrated the horizontal movements with remotely sensed oceanographic data to determine the turtles’ response to the environment, and applied this information to recommendations for conservation in the pelagic environment. A generalized additive mixed model applied to the daily turtle travel rates confirmed that slower travel rates occurred at cooler sea surface temperatures, higher chlorophyll a concentration and stronger vertical Ekman upwelling, all of which are considered favorable foraging conditions. The southern terminus (35 to 37°S) of the leatherback tracks was also in an area of increased mesoscale activity that might act as a physical mechanism to aggregate their prey, gelatinous zooplankton. However, this could also act as a thermal limit to their distribution. This characterization of leatherback habitat use could aid the development of management efforts within the South Pacific Ocean to reduce mortality of leatherback turtles from fisheries interactions.

KEY WORDS: Leatherback turtle · Post-nesting migration · Generalized additive models · Sea surface temperature · Surface chlorophyll concentration · Satellite tracking · Remote sensing

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Cite this article as: Shillinger GL, Swithenbank AM, Bailey H, Bograd SJ and others (2011) Vertical and horizontal habitat preferences of post-nesting leatherback turtles in the South Pacific Ocean. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 422:275-289.

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