All that hard work those loggerhead mamas (and one green lady) put in over the summer is evident up and down our 26-mile beach.


All that hard work those loggerhead mamas (and one green lady) put in over the summer is evident up and down our 26-mile beach.



Our Topsail Turtle Project has records going back to the 1980s that track general nesting and hatching activity along our coast. But even with those records, it’s impossible to predict what kind of nesting season each year will bring. And who could have even imagined that we would someday have a way to identify the exact location and number of nests an individual sea turtle laid during the course of her nesting season?



Loggerheads nesting in North and South Carolina and Georgia are genetically distinct from loggerheads nesting in Florida and other parts of the world. Collectively they’re referred to as the Northern Recovery Unit. Past estimates of the population of nesting females have been hampered by many factors. Flipper tags get lost, assuming that the turtle had ever been tagged. Mamas nest when and where they want, mainly at night, and it’s impossible to monitor every single beach up and down the coast.



Now, thanks to a procedure developed by scientists at the University of Georgia there’s a way to extract and analyze maternal DNA from viable loggerhead eggs. And since 2010 we’ve been participating in this important work. By collecting a single, fresh egg from each nest, we can identify which turtle laid that clutch. The maternal nuclear DNA is contained between the layers of the inner shell membrane and it’s critical that we collect the egg within 24 hours. After that time, the embryonic DNA, which contains the DNA from both parents, migrates into the inner membrane of the shell.



The data obtained so far for Topsail nesters is fascinating. For years it was thought that turtles pretty much “came home” when they were ready to nest. From the data collected to date we now see that they can be less discriminating and more far-ranging when selecting their nesting site. Some of the data at the edges of the standard deviation showed, for example, that in 2011 one lady laid three nests spread out over 540 km: one on Hatteras, one on Topsail and a third on Ossabaw, which is south of Savannah. At the other end of the curve, another mama laid all three of her nests on Topsail; total distance travelled was .55 km.



It also showed a marked variation in the number of nests a turtle might lay: from a single nest to a few over-achievers who laid six nests in a season. Ongoing analysis has identified some mother/daughter and sister/sister pairs of nesting turtles. Identification and examination of the nesting home ranges of close relatives could eventually help in determining the scale of natal homing by nesting females. Maybe the kids actually do return home when they grow up after all!



Although we’ll probably never be able to accurately estimate the population of adult Loggerheads (so much is still unknown about these enigmatic critters) this research is a big step towards establishing a more statistically significant number for nesting females in the Northern Recovery Unit. The data is available online for each state, and for every beach participating in the research: seaturtle.org/nestdb/genetics.shtml.



Everywhere a nest!



By the time you read this the official nesting season will have ended, but of course not every mama carries a calendar around with them. Now our Turtle Project volunteers turn their attention to monitoring the existing nests for activity of any kind. Eggs will continue incubating and hatching through the month of October and our nest sitters will be out in force making sure each of those tiny critters gets into the ocean.



We continue to rely on our visitors and residents to be our extra eyes on the beach, and to help us maintain a safe environment those hatchlings. Turn off outdoor lights; they can disorient and distract a turtle. If you dig holes be sure to fill them in before you leave the beach for the day. Holes are not only a hazard for humans (there have been numerous injuries over the years) but they can trap/injure a turtle, especially a little one-ounce hatchling, and could cause their death. Ditto with beach furniture that’s been abandoned or even just left out overnight.



We honestly don’t know exactly when a nest will hatch. We’re not being evasive when you ask – just honest.  If you see a nice, smooth ramp-like area in front of a staked nest it means our coordinator(s) feel that a hatch is likely to happen within a few days. You may join them on the beach at night as long as you sit quietly and follow their instructions. All species of sea turtles are federally protected and harassing or harming them in any way will result in hefty fines and/or imprisonment. Even though our volunteers are out every morning, and now nest sitting at night, they can’t be everywhere 24/7. If you come across a nesting turtle, turtle tracks, a hatching nest or hatchlings on the beach contact our Director of Beach Operations, Terry Meyer at 910-470-2880 who will pick up turtle calls no matter what time of the day or night. Please report any and all local sea turtle activity (strandings, injured or sick turtles) immediately to Terry. She can be reached at: topsailseaturtle@aol.com for non-emergencies.



Hospital gift shop schedule



The gift shop at the new hospital is open on Monday and Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. We’re stocked up with exclusive logo and other T-shirts, hoodies, accessories and all sorts of plush turtles. We can only accept cash and checks at this time, but hope to get that credit card line hooked up shortly. While you’re there take a peek into Sea Turtle Bay, the soon-to-be new home of our resident Kemp’s and Hospital Ambassador “Lennie.” His tank is the large one right in front of the door, and his friends will be spread out in all the other tanks being plumbed in as you read this.



Things are changing overnight, and the best way to keep up with what’s going on is by visiting our Facebook page: The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center. It’s updated almost daily. Pay attention and visit often because it’s where Jean announces our “mini releases,” sometimes just a few hours before they happen. We’ll keep you apprised of our progress and let you know when we’re ready to open for tours.



To get to our new hospital: Off of 50/210, take J.H. Batts Road (next to Gilligan’s) toward the Surf City Community Center. Turn right onto Community Center Drive and keep going all the way around their building to the big tan building with the light green roof. That’s us. We do not have a phone there yet, and the one at our current place hasn’t worked for months, so calling is futile. We’re not hard to find.



Questions, comments, suggestions?



Please direct any questions, comments or suggestions re: this column to me at: flippers@att.net. To be added to the newsletter list e-mail me at the same address: flippers@att.net. If your e-mail address has recently changed please send me your new one so I can update my master list. I’ve been adding everyone who requests the newsletter, but the next one won’t come out until after we make the move to the new facility.



Karen Sota is the volunteer media coordinator for the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach.