Identification of distinct movement patterns in Pacific leatherback turtle populations influenced by ocean conditions

Ecol Appl. 2012 Apr;22(3):735-47. doi: 10.1890/11-0633.


Interactions with fisheries are believed to be a major cause of mortality for adult leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), which is of particular concern in the Pacific Ocean, where they have been rapidly declining. In order to identify where these interactions are occurring and how they may be reduced, it is essential first to understand the movements and behavior of leatherback turtles. There are two regional nesting populations in the East Pacific (EP) and West Pacific (WP), comprising multiple nesting sites. We synthesized tracking data from the two populations and compared their movement patterns. A switching state-space model was applied to 135 Argos satellite tracks to account for observation error, and to distinguish between migratory and area-restricted search behaviors. The tracking data, from the largest leatherback data set ever assembled, indicated that there was a high degree of spatial segregation between EP and WP leatherbacks. Area-restricted search behavior mainly occurred in the southeast Pacific for the EP leatherbacks, whereas the WP leatherbacks had several different search areas in the California Current, central North Pacific, South China Sea, off eastern Indonesia, and off southeastern Australia. We also extracted remotely sensed oceanographic data and applied a generalized linear mixed model to determine if leatherbacks exhibited different behavior in relation to environmental variables. For the WP population, the probability of area-restricted search behavior was positively correlated with chlorophyll-a concentration. This response was less strong in the EP population, but these turtles had a higher probability of search behavior where there was greater Ekman upwelling, which may increase the transport of nutrients and consequently prey availability. These divergent responses to oceanographic conditions have implications for leatherback vulnerability to fisheries interactions and to the effects of climate change. The occurrence of leatherback turtles within both coastal and pelagic areas means they have a high risk of exposure to many different fisheries, which may be very distant from their nesting sites. The EP leatherbacks have more limited foraging grounds than the WP leatherbacks, which could make them more susceptible to any temperature or prey changes that occur in response to climate change.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Identification Systems
  • Animal Migration / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Ecosystem*
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Models, Biological
  • Nesting Behavior
  • Pacific Ocean
  • Population Density
  • Seasons
  • Time Factors
  • Turtles*