ESR prepress abstract  -  DOI:

The impact of exceptional growth rates on estimations of life stage duration in Hawaiian green sea turtles

Shawn K. K. Murakawa*, Melissa L. Snover


ABSTRACT: The Hawaiian green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) population has steadily increased since its protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1978. However, an understanding of their recovery status is stymied by lack of certainty regarding the population age structure. Based on the observed slow growth rates of juveniles, current assessments place age at first reproduction in Hawaiian green sea turtles at 35–40 years, although a recent study suggests 23 years for this population. It is possible that somatic growth dynamics such as growth spurts have been missed by traditional mark and recapture studies. Skeletochronology provides annual longitudinal data on growth rates of marine turtles, allowing for the detection of rare but potentially important growth spurts. The present study uses skeletochronology to estimate growth rates and detect the frequency of growth spurts in 30–90 cm straight carapace length (SCL) Hawaiian green sea turtles. We found that growth spurts occurred throughout the life span, but peaked for males from 50–59.9 cm SCL and for females from 70–79.9 cm SCL. The growth rates were binned into 10 cm SCL size class bins, and 4 methods were used to estimate the mean growth rate for each bin. We found that mean growth rates overestimated life stage durations for each of the methods, although the expectation of the lognormal distribution gave the least biased results. Our study suggests that infrequent growth spurts are not represented in mean growth rate statistics but these spurts likely result in faster lifetime growth rates and lower age at first reproduction than has been estimated using traditional methods.