Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I recently was allowed to participate in a unique scientific and educational opportunity- my Tetrapod Biology class and I attended the necropsy of a large Loggerhead Sea Turtle. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a necropsy is basically an autopsy for animals. The goal is to figure out why the animal died, information which can hopefully be used to protect the rest of the species in the future. Since this species is considered “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, this information is particularly valuable.
Many factors contributed to population declines among Loggerheads. Like sharks, they are slow growing, which makes it difficult for their numbers to quickly rebound. I’ve heard a range of numbers, but according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, they reach reproductive maturity around 35 years of age. Turtle populations have historically taken a big beating from shrimp trawling (the turtles used to get caught in the nets and drown), but the invention of the Turtle Excluder Device has helped on this front. These animals use the beach to lay their eggs, which are vulnerable to anthropogenic disturbance (beach nourishment, riding ATV’s on beaches, poaching, etc). Artificial lighting along the beach can also distract hatchlings, which are used to crawling in the direction of the light to reach the relative safety of the oceans. Since the temperature of the beach determines what sex the turtle will become, they are also threatened by global climate change.
It is extremely important to put the photos you are about to see into their proper context- they show a team of trained professionals who care very deeply about sea turtles using the latest scientific and medical techniques to figure out what happened to an already-dead turtle. They do not show animal abuse of any kind. Some are quite graphic and if such things bother you I’d advise against reading further.
Note: All photos were taken by me