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The boys are back in town!

By Nicolas Pilcher, 23rd August 2013

Just back from a laparoscopy sampling spree on sunny Mantanani island, just off the northwest tip of Borneo. We’ve been looking at turtle sex ratios in the wild now for a number of years in the shallow around this island, and it seems to be paying off. In 2010 we published a paper indicating that the young juvenile turtles that settled on Mantanani originated predominantly from the Turtle Islands heritage Protected Area shared by Malaysia and the Philippines, and from the Turtle Islands in Sarawak. A handful also came from peninsular Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and elsewhere. We learnt that through genetics.

But the most important finding was that the turtles were practically all female – a result of biased development temperatures in hatcheries. That has now been reversed, and last year we found our first male turtle in quite a while (see earlier blog).

But this trip we had six more males, and early signs point to a slow recovery in sex-ratios in the wild. Fingers crossed! The boys are back in town – indeed!

While most turtle conservation and research projects take place on land, we focus out work on in-water activities – where we can take a peek at what happens along the life-cycle of the turtle rather than only looking at adults and eggs.

Imagine, a turtle enters the sea as a hatchling and we never see it again until it is an adult some three decades later. Imagine it as some long dark tunnel they go through and we only see them at either end. But what if adults stop coming back? Where did the problem lie? Did the problem happen recently – maybe bycatch in fisheries? Or did the problem happen two decades ago when they were juveniles? Current management regimes can’t answer those questions…..

But laparoscopy and in-water studies can! Imagine the laparoscope as being the way to look into that dark tunnel of a turtle’s life-cycle and let the outside world know what’s going on. We can see if there are males and females. We can see if there is recruitment to the juvenile and adult stages. We can see if adults are mature and if there are new reproductive females joining the population each year. Through the in-water work we can find out how fast they grow, and make educated guesses of turtles’ ages and the periods spent in each stage as they grow up.

This is the only long-running foraging ground study of its kind in all of Southeast Asia, and is helping managers all over the region better understand the biology and development needs of sea turtles. Follow us as we learn more about these incredible animals…

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