Green Sea Turtle “Subspecies”

Red Sea Turtle
Western Green Sea Turtle

This is something of a murky and hard to research subject. However, you may have noticed that when you snorkel in the Western Pacific Ocean or in the Indian Ocean, the Green Sea Turtles you see are larger and have redder shells.

Meanwhile, when you snorkel in the Eastern Pacific Ocean around Hawaii, the Green Sea Turtles are more of a black color.

Eastern Green Sea Turtle

If you’ve been to other areas such as the Caribbean or South America, you may have seen Green Sea Turtles with different coloring as well, since NOAA identifies eleven “Distinct Population Segments.”

Note: They are not called “Green Sea Turtles” because of the shell color. Rather, they are named this way because they have green fat lining the insides of their bodies. 

Their classification so far goes:

Class: Reptillia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Crytodera
Superfamily: Cheloniidae
Family: Cheloniinae
Genus: Chelonia
Species: Chelonia Mydas

Western Green Sea Turtle

Curently, the Distinct Population Segments are only classified as “intra-species variations.” Chelonia Mydras, (commonly known as the “Green Sea Turtle,”) is considered a single species. In other words, these turtles who all look very different and who likely don’t breed are classified as the same for now.

The species variations include many factors like shape, size, diet, and color.

It should be noted that the usual reason to single out a “subspecies” is if Distinct Population Segments cannot breed with each other. I would point out that there is no evidence that these DPS are breeding. And if they are, they is no evidence that they can produce viable offspring.

(Think of horses and donkeys. They can mate and make a mule, but mules are sterile. A horse and a donkey cannot produce viable offspring with the ability to procreate.)

Eastern Green Sea Turtle
Eastern Green Sea Turtle

So to recap: We don’t know if different Distinct Population Segments of Green Sea Turtle can (or do) breed with each other, as this behavior has not been observed. This means that we need to ask: Are these animals sufficiently distinctive enough to warrant separate classifications? (If they are, each DPS could be classified as a subspecies.)

I am arguing that they are definitely different enough.

Green sea turtles from the Western Pacific and India Oceans are much larger, and live on a diet of things like squid, jellyfish, mangrove fruit, and sea grass. Since they live in warmer water, different foods are available to them. The difference in diet may be what causes them to have different pigment and to grow larger. Whatever the reason, they are very easily distinguished from their fellows.

Green Sea Turtles from the Eastern Pacific (most notably from Hawaii) are sometimes called “Black Sea Turtles” due to their dark coloring. These turtles are smaller on average, and their shells are more rounded. They have no access to tropical foods like mangrove fruit or sea grass. Instead, they seem to eat mostly algae and fish. In addition to these differences, this (I’m calling it) subspecies likes to come out of the water and bask. As far as I can tell, no one has observed this behavior in Green Sea Turtles anywhere else in the world.

So between the two types of Green Sea Turtle I have observed closely, I see a huge difference.

Western Green Sea Turtle

Why does this matter?

Well, if these eleven Distinct Population Segments can be classified as subspecies and are deemed significantly different, then each subspecies gets to be listed separately on the endangered species list.

Right now, the DPS are listed separately on a tentative basis. However, Hawaiian and Chamorro cultural proponents are fighting that classification because they want to be able to hunt sea turtles again. If these populations were classified as subspecies, they would have a better chance of staying on the Endangered Species List separately and they would be eligible for more long-term protection.

Think about it: These two types of Green Sea Turtles likely can’t breed with each other. They’re extremely different. Having them considered one species means that the populations could be assessed together to determine numbers! They’re far less likely to qualify for ongoing protection that way.

I hope that we’ll be able to get all eleven Distinct Population Segments of Green Sea Turtle classified as subspecies so that they will be eligible for separate protections in spite of any legal challenges.

Eastern Green Sea Turtle

What about the cultural heritage of hunting of these turtles?

This will sound awful but here it is: I’m Portuguese. That means my cultural heritage is invading foreign lands and killing their inhabitants. And just because it’s my heritage, that doesn’t make it okay. I am allowed to be ashamed of that part of my heritage and to know that my ancestors were wrong when they did all that hunting of natives for sport.

So maybe, if I can give up the parts of my heritage that were wrong, then so can everyone else.

If the Native populations of Guam and Hawaii can’t admit that killing these magical creatures is a mistake, then we have to do what we can to make sure it’s illegal to kill them. That’s why I want to ask that you write to NOAA and request that Green Sea Turtles Distinct Population Segments be recognized as separate subspecies. Please ask that their protections as eleven different endangered subspecies will be kept in place to prevent hunting them in the Hawaiian islands or Guam.

It’s rare that you see a Honu (Hawaiian word for green sea turtle) or Haagan (Chamorro word for Green Sea Turtle) when swimming because there aren’t enough of them. Let’s make sure that future generations get to enjoy these amazing creatures and that the people of today are not allowed to hunt them to extinction.

NOAA Fisheries
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

nos.info@noaa.gov

Green Sea Turtle
Eastern Green Sea Turtle

 

Reef Monitoring

Jenifer DeLemont
Green Sea Turtle

If any of you snorkel or dive, remember that you can always share your data with a reef monitoring project and help advance science.

I want to talk to you today about how to take pictures for reef monitoring, how to label and make notes on those pictures, and where to send them to. Hopefully some of you will find this interesting, and you’ll want to spend some time helping our oceans!

If you plan to do so, there are a few things that you want to remember:

Overall shots of the reef are more important than close-up pictures of fish or coral. The main thing that NOAA is doing is monitoring overall coral health and counting various animals/corals. For this, wide shots are best.

Make notes on the depth the photos were taken at, and of anything else that may be relevant. Remember to think like a marine biologist and note things like: The number of animals sighted and if it is higher/lower than normal, the amount of litter, any invasive species such as the Crown of Thorns, and an estimate of the water temperature. All details matter because they put the data in context (data out of context is less useful.)

Crown of Thorns

You’ll want to submit the data on a flash drive with your name and contact details, and make sure to say whether or not you want credit by name if they use a photo you took for something.

Find the local NOAA office in your area and go in person, or mail the flash drive in. If you cannot find a local office, you can always do a Google search for reef monitoring in your area.

Example: I live on Guam, which is part of the Marianas Islands. So if you type in Marianas Island Reef Monitoring, you get Eyes of The Reef (which is our local outreach program by NOAA.)

If you are in the Hawaiian Islands, The Marianas Islands, or anywhere that there is coral, you should think about sending your pictures to a reef monitoring project. Even if you only go on vacation to one of these places, remember that science is about the aggregation of data and looking for patterns, and more data is always better than less.

I have been helping to share data with the Eyes of the Reef project that NOAA has in Guam for years. It’s just a drop in the bucket when you look at how big the reefs are and how many reefs there are, but every little bit helps.

Giant Anemone

Missing Turtle

Larry

For more than a year there was a turtle living at Fish Eye Marine Park. He ate the food that they threw in the water for the fish, and visited with the tourists. Some people called him “Larry,” and other people called him “Crush.”

I don’t know what he called himself.

However, he had a small metal tag under each front flipper. One said NOAA Maui USA, and the other said PI2775. He was a green sea turtle who was approximately 50 years of age, and he had a girl turtle in the Piti Bomb Holes near by that he seemed to visit with.

In Mid-July, the tour operators at Fish Eye watched as people from the Department of Agriculture came and took Larry the turtle away.

They said they were taking him “to study,” according to the tour operators.

However, when we called the Department of Agriculture, they  claimed that the turtle “was a nuisance” and so as moved “to the other side of the island.”

Now of course, this was not his first time being caught on Guam. The Marine Biologists at Underwater World took him for study. They weighed him, measured him, and then released him on the other side of the island.

He swam right back, because he enjoys people and food.

However, after the Department of Agriculture claims to have taken him “to the other side of the island,” he did not swim back.

He was a very strong swimmer, and you can be sure that he was capable. How can you be sure, you ask? Well, the people at Underwater World were actually hoping that they could find some evidence that his rear flipper (which was damaged) made it too difficult for him to be in the wild.

They hoped this because they have a rescued sea turtle in the aquarium already, and they hoped for a second.

However, according to the laws governing the treatment of an endangered species, if they are found to be able to survive on their own, they cannot be “rescued.”

Ergo, we know that if the turtle had actually been released by the Department of Agriculture, he would have swam back as he had done before.

We cannot make conclusions from the information that we have. However, we can know two things for sure.

1. Turtle meat fetches a high price on Guam and on the other islands in the chain, because the Native people eat turtle. They know that these turtles are endangered, but some choose to do it anyway. Anyone who took the turtle to sell would have made a LOT of money.

2. They were very suspicious on the phone and asked for my husband’s full name and information before claiming that the turtle was moved. If they are keeping track of who is asking, then one would suggest that they have a reason to be worried.

I am not saying that the Department of Agriculture sold the turtle. However, I am saying without a doubt that they were the last people to have him, and that in two months, he has still not been sighted anywhere else.

If they did not sell him, then their choice to move him certainly seems to have brought about his untimely demise, leaving his girlfriend single and removing his genes from the species.

Furthermore, I spoke with several tour operators who said the initial complaint against the turtle was falsified.

They claim that he was good for business and made the tourists happy and that they would never have done anything that led to his removal.

It is certainly suspicious.

I hope that there will be an investigation, since selling an endangered species for profit is obviously illegal. However, given the diminished funding of the EPA, I worry that justice will not be served.

turtle and zebra fish.jpg

Side Note:

I have also not seen the female turtle who was hanging around the Piti Bomb Holes near Fish Eye. However, I am not sure that not seeing her is significant. Green Sea Turtles are not social, and it is possible that she was just around to “visit” a boy turtle for a bit.

This is what she looked like:

girlfriend

If you look, you can see that you doesn’t have a tail that extends past her shell, or claws on her flippers. Only males have those traits (which is actually to hold onto the female’s shell.)

She was a little smaller than the male turtle, but they seemed similar in size and age.

girlfriend two

Anyway:

The point of this post is that if anyone has any information about the green sea turtle lovingly called “Larry” or “Crush” who used to live at Fish Eye Marine Park, please let me know.

Thank you.