Tuesday, December 6, 2016

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The hawksbill turtles were once considered extinct in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of Clark Anderson/Aquaimages. The hawksbill turtles were once considered extinct in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of Clark Anderson/Aquaimages.

Saving Sea Turtles

An SDSU graduate student helps uncover a hawksbill population once considered extinct in the Pacific Ocean.
By Holly Pablo

Since the 1980s, hawksbill sea turtles, or Eretmochelys imbricata, were believed to be virtually non-existent. But an SDSU graduate student has changed all that through three years of grassroots efforts and field research tracking adult female hawksbills.

Alexander Gaos found the critically endangered hawksbill turtles, which normally inhabit coral and rocky reefs, living among in-shore mangrove estuaries in the eastern Pacific Ocean. His work provides much-needed data on areas that hawksbills use for nesting, migration and feeding from Mexico to Peru.

Solving the mystery

The new findings, published in a report this month in the academic journal, Biology Letters, explains why the hawksbills went undetected for many years. Gaos's report is considered the most complete set of observations on habitat use by hawksbill turtles in the eastern Pacific to date.

“We were really shocked to see that adult hawksbills weren’t even using coral or rocky reefs or any habitats that were even remotely similar to habitats they associate with in other parts of the world,” Gaos said.

Good news and bad news

The hawksbills’ reliance on mangroves, however, is both bad news and good news.

Proximity to human communities places the turtles in danger of deadly explosives used for fishing, and egg collection for human consumption. Additionally, their colorful shells have long been exploited for commercial trade.

Campaign Flag

Gaos's research demonstrates the global impact of the university, a key initiative of the Campaign for SDSU. Whether it’s the university’s Fulbright scholars, its study abroad opportunities or the international research of its faculty members, SDSU competes on an international level. Learn more about the global reach of SDSU and how you can contribute.

Plan of action

The "rediscovery" of hawksbills is a collective effort between individual scientists and organizations, including Conservation International and ICAPO, the Iniciativa Carey del Pacifico Oriental (Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative). ICAPO is dedicated to increasing data collection on the species, prioritizing research sites, identifying urgent threats and spearheading conservation efforts. 

In spite of threats to the hawksbills, Conservation International and ICAPO believe targeted protection efforts focused on their small estuaries will improve opportunities for conservation and recovery of these marine animals.

“Where some have been found already, many more might be hidden away, still escaping detection by us,” Gaos added.

“That tells us that the ICAPO network needs to continue thinking outside the box and working together to solve these mysteries, focusing in areas where hawksbills haven’t traditionally flourished, but are surviving anyway.”