Like many of you out there, the ARKive team find marine turtles utterly fascinating – they have such interesting life cycles, and are so prehistoric-looking yet are totally adorable. Who doesn’t squeal with delight when Crush from Finding Nemo pops up on the TV screen?! We decided to catch up with one of the world’s leading sea turtle experts, Professor Brendan Godley, to have a chat about these wonderful reptiles, and find out more about the conservation work Brendan is involved with.
Hi Brendan, welcome to the ARKive blog! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where and what did you study?
I am Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation in the picturesque Cornish town of Penryn, near Falmouth. Originally from Scotland, I began studying turtles in 1989, as a 19-year-old zoology student, when I took part in a Glasgow University student expedition to Trinidad. I completed a vet degree and then went on to do a PhD on the ecology of sea turtles, including causes of mortality.
Why sea turtles? What is it about them in particular that made you want to study them?
At the tender age of 19, I was intoxicated by the mixture of excitement of seeing turtles crawling out of the dark Caribbean Sea, the joy of being in such a colourful and vibrant place, and the satisfaction of overcoming the trials and tribulations of fieldwork. The fact that sea turtles were of conservation concern and that so much was yet to be known about their biology meant that I found a raison d’être, and my path was set.
Sea turtles are incredible animals; those that nest on Ascension Island live in Brazil, which means they have to swim across the whole Atlantic to breed. Incredibly, some of the females we have observed there have lost all but a stump of one of their front flippers and have still managed to make it. I think this is the kind of robustness that has allowed sea turtles to be among the great survivors.
Where else in the world does your research take you? Do you have a favourite location to work in?
I used to spend ten months of the year in the field, but now I am more UK-based because I need to be at the university during the academic year in order to teach conservation students from around the world. My research group, however, supports long-term monitoring and conservation efforts for green turtles in Northern Cyprus, on Ascension Island, and on the Cayman Islands – all places I often visit for bouts of fieldwork. I really cannot pick a favourite location as they are all so different. I feel lucky to be exposed to the variety of people, habitats, conservation problems and research questions associated with each of these field sites.
You mentioned green turtles – what are the main threats to this species at present? What are the conservation difficulties for this particular species?
Sea turtles face a range of threats. Principal among these are direct and indirect capture in fisheries, habitat loss and degradation, pollution and climate change. At the moment, the main threat facing green turtles is that they are still quite heavily exploited for food in many places, and some of these harvests may not be sustainable. Many people have heard of turtle soup. This was mainly made from green turtles, millions of which were exploited for centuries, leading to a drastic reduction in their numbers. The good news is that their populations have started to rise very fast in many places where people are not so dependent on the direct exploitation of wild living resources, and where harvests, especially of adult turtles, have been stopped.
What is your green turtle research focus at the moment?
In recent years, we have been trying to take our work away from the nesting beaches, so we have been using techniques such as satellite tracking, genetics and in-water studies to gain an understanding of turtle migratory routes and key foraging areas. We recently collaborated with a crowd of international researchers to analyse green turtle satellite tracking data from around the world. Interestingly, we found that a notable proportion of turtles were utilising the small proportion of sea that is covered by Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). This does not seem to have happened by chance, and may reflect the fact that these areas are better protected, or that sea grasses, which green turtles eat, are featured within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Either way, it is an intriguing conservation finding. You can read the paper here.
That all sounds really interesting! Can you tell us a funny anecdote stemming from your work with green turtles?!
Turtle work can be very tiring, especially in the peak of the season when you’re up working on the beaches all night and the heat makes it difficult to sleep in the day. Equally, green turtles undertake a great deal of work to cover their nests, often moving tonnes of sand and digging a trench up to ten metres long. There was one occasion where one of our students in Cyprus was observing a turtle laying her clutch and must have nodded off. When I returned to team up with the student I couldn’t find him. Amazingly – although luckily not life-threateningly – he had managed to sleep through the process of being almost completely buried by the female as she covered her eggs.
Oh goodness! A lucky escape! Lastly, what is your favourite green turtle photo on ARKive?
There are many beautiful and impactful pictures, but two stood out for me. Firstly, the turtle trapped in the net, as it highlights the threat of the impacts of fisheries.
Additionally, the female nesting in plastic resonates quite profoundly. No matter where I go in the world, even the remotest nesting beaches far from human habitation, plastic is there on the beaches. This is clearly a problem that is going to worsen in coming years.
Those certainly are powerful images. Thanks, Brendan, we’ll catch up with you again soon!
Find out more about green turtles on ARKive.
Learn more about the impacts of plastics on ARKive.