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ESR prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01030

Morphological variation in leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) hatchlings at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, US Virgin Islands

Shreya M. Banerjee*, Amy Frey, Carolyn M. Kurle, Justin R. Perrault, Kelly R. Stewart

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Understanding species’ mating systems provides important information about their ecology, life history, and behavior. Direct observations of mating behaviors can be challenging, but molecular techniques can reveal information about mating systems and paternal identity in difficult-to-observe species like sea turtles. Genetic markers can be used to assess paternity of a clutch and to assign hatchlings to a father. Leatherback turtles Dermochelys coriacea sometimes mate with multiple individuals, resulting in clutches with mixed paternity; however the effects of multiple paternity on hatchling quality are unclear. Leatherback hatchlings at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, exhibit visible variation in individual body size, sometimes within the same clutch. We collected morphometrics and tissue samples from hatchlings across multiple nesting seasons (2009, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016) and found that hatchlings had small but statistically significant differences in morphometrics between years. We used maternal and hatchling microsatellite genotypes to reconstruct paternal genotypes, assigning fathers to each hatchling. We found multiple paternity in 5 of 17 clutches analyzed and compared differences in morphometrics between full-siblings with differences between half-siblings. We found no significant differences between morphometrics of hatchlings from the same mother but different fathers. We compared within-clutch variances in morphometrics for clutches with and without multiple paternity and found no significant difference in morphological variation between them. Therefore, we could not attribute differences in hatchling size within a clutch to paternal contribution. Understanding other factors affecting hatchling morphology, and other possible fitness metrics, may reveal insights into the benefits, or lack thereof, of polyandry in sea turtles.