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Survival and breeding interval of an endangered marine vertebrate, the leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea in French Guiana

D. Chevallier, M. Girondot, R. Berzins, J. Chevalier, B. de Thoisy, J. Fretey, L. Kelle, J. -D. Lebreton

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ABSTRACT: In the context of global change, endangered species such as sea turtles undergo strong population dynamics changes. Understanding demographic processes inducing such changes is critical for developing appropriate measures for conservation and management. Nesting females of the French Guiana population of leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) represented 40% of the world’s total in 2001; today, they represents only 10%. Here, we analyze data from the long-term monitoring program of leatherbacks in French Guiana, based on 28 yr of Capture-Mark-Recapture data from 46,000 individuals in the north-west of French Guiana. We used multievent models (multistate capture-recapture models with state uncertainty) to represent the main peculiarity of the life cycle, intermittent reproduction, and to take advantage of the use of several different types of marks to account for mark loss and incomplete detection. The average annual adult survival probability 0.789 ± 0.009 is low compared to published estimates for this species. By combining the estimates of departure and return probabilities, we provide an estimate of the interval among laying seasons equal to 2.777 ± 0.118 yr, which corresponds with previous findings. Accounting for survival, this interval translates into an average of 1.704 ± 0.034 further reproductive seasons for an adult female having just bred, which is remarkably low compared to other long-lived vertebrates. The representation of the life cycle and mark loss in our models provide a sound structure for broader and richer analyses to extract biological information from marked individuals and offers an invaluable source of demographic information on leatherbacks, a species for which only a small segment of the population is accessible to intermittent sampling.