Alternate Title

Characteristics of a Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) Assemblage in Northwestern Florida Determined During a Hypothermic Stunning Event


A hypothermic stunning event (i.e., cold-stunning event) during late Dec. 2000 and early Jan. 2001 involving an unprecedented number of sea turtles provided an opportunity to characterize the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) assemblage in St. Joseph Bay (Gulf County, Florida). In addition to 388 green turtles, the 401 cold-stunned turtles comprised 10 Kemp's ridleys (Lepidochelys kempii) and three loggerheads (Caretta caretta). Most (337/401) of the turtles survived and were eventually released. To place this event in perspective, we categorize sea turtle cold-stunning events in the eastern United States as either acute or chronic. Acute cold-stunning events, like the one in St. Joseph Bay, occur only during unusually cold winters in shallow-water areas (< 2m), where sea turtles are year-round residents. These are short-lived (< 2 wk) events with low mortality rates (< 30%) that affect principally green turtles. Chronic cold-stunning events occur every winter in areas where sea turtles are seasonal residents. These are long-lived (1-3 mo) events with high mortality rates (> 60%) that affect primarily Kemp's ridleys. All of the green turtles from St. Joseph Bay were neritic-phase juveniles, and the mean straight-line carapace length of this group was 36.6 cm (range = 25.0-75.3 cm, SD = 8.9). This assemblage of juvenile green turtles is the first documented along the northern Gulf of Mexico. Sequencing of mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) from tissue samples taken from 255 of the green turtles revealed that about 81% were from the nesting populations in the United States (Florida) and Mexico (Yucatan). This assemblage is unusual in the United States because it does not have a substantial representation from the nesting population in Costa Rica (Tortuguero), the Atlantic's largest green turtle nesting population. Based on necropsies of 51 of the green turtles, the sex ratio of this assemblage was female-biased (3.25 females: 1 male), which may be a result of warm incubation temperatures on the nesting beaches in Florida. The majority of the material found in the gastrointestinal tracts of the green turtles that died was turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum). This was the first time turtle grass has been identified as the primary diet of juvenile green turtles anywhere in the continental United States. Green turtles in St. Joseph Bay appear to have few direct threats, but the seagrass upon which these turtles primarily forage has suffered extensive damage from boat propellers.