In a recent study at Florida Atlantic University, marine biologists put baby sea turtles on treadmills to learn if they’d be able to swim after crawling a certain distance!
The 24 hours after baby sea turtles are hatched are known as the "frenzy" period for them, during which they must: a) hatch from their nest, b) figure out where the ocean is and c) scramble there without being eaten. Plenty of predators are happy to disrupt that last step, but since so many hatch, there is safety in numbers, since predators can only eat so much at once.
In recent years, a new threat has been introduced, light pollution from local residents. Baby sea turtles seem to have an attraction to light, which scientists believe is an evolutionary trigger for them to immediately hit the surf after hatching.
In hopes of helping these endangered turtles, the researchers conducted their study of how extended crawling and swimming affects disoriented hatchlings.
"What prompted our study was the desire to understand what happens to these hatchlings after they spend hours crawling on the beach because they are disoriented," says lead author Sarah Milton, a biologist at Florida Atlantic University.. "We wanted to know if they would even be able to swim after crawling 500 meters or more, which could take them as long as seven hours to complete."
The study involved 150 loggerhead and green sea turtle hatchlings, all collected as they hatched from 27 nests in Palm Beach County, Florida. In a lab setting, the researchers simulated the effects of disorientation by placing hatchlings on tiny enclosed treadmills, using lights as a prompt for them to walk forward.
The hatchlings were then dressed in a special swimsuit and placed in a small tank, where researchers tested how the treadmill walk affected their swimming ability. They did this by measuring oxygen consumption during the activity periods, and by measuring how fast the turtles breathed and paddled their flippers. They also watched the behavior of both normal and disoriented hatchlings, seeing far they crawled, how long it took them and how often they needed to take a rest. The results from the lab and field studies matched, the researchers report — and were not what anyone expected.
"We were completely surprised by the results of this study," Milton says. "We were expecting that the hatchlings would be really tired from the extended crawling and that they would not be able to swim well. It turned out not to be the case and that they are in fact crawling machines. They crawl and rest, crawl and rest, and that's why they weren't too tired to swim."
This is good news though and it really shows strong these tiny creatures are! There is a such thing as Turtle Power! At the same time, it doesn't mean light pollution (leaving lights on while hatching season) isn't dangerous for baby turtles. Even if disorientation doesn't make them slower and as tired as much as we thought, it still means they spend more time than necessary on dry land, which means more time for them to run into threats like predators or road traffic.