, Volume 145, Issue 5, pp 1043-1059
Date: 28 May 2004

Spatial and temporal variability in somatic growth of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) resident in the Hawaiian Archipelago

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The somatic growth dynamics of green turtles (Chelonia mydas) resident in five separate foraging grounds within the Hawaiian Archipelago were assessed using a robust non-parametric regression modelling approach. The foraging grounds range from coral reef habitats at the north-western end of the archipelago, to coastal habitats around the main islands at the south-eastern end of the archipelago. Pelagic juveniles recruit to these neritic foraging grounds from ca. 35 cm SCL or 5 kg (~6 years of age), but grow at foraging-ground-specific rates, which results in quite different size- and age-specific growth rate functions. Growth rates were estimated for the five populations as change in straight carapace length (cm SCL year−1) and, for two of the populations, also as change in body mass (kg year−1). Expected growth rates varied from ca. 0–2.5 cm SCL year−1, depending on the foraging-ground population, which is indicative of slow growth and decades to sexual maturity, since expected size of first-time nesters is ≥80 cm SCL. The expected size-specific growth rate functions for four populations sampled in the south-eastern archipelago displayed a non-monotonic function, with an immature growth spurt at ca. 50–53 cm SCL (~18–23 kg) or ca. 13–19 years of age. The growth spurt for the Midway atoll population in the north-western archipelago occurs at a much larger size (ca. 65 cm SCL or 36 kg), because of slower immature growth rates that might be due to a limited food stock and cooler sea surface temperature. Expected age-at-maturity was estimated to be ca. 35–40 years for the four populations sampled at the south-eastern end of the archipelago, but it might well be >50 years for the Midway population. The Hawaiian stock comprises mainly the same mtDNA haplotype, with no differences in mtDNA stock composition between foraging-ground populations, so that the geographic variability in somatic growth rates within the archipelago is more likely due to local environmental factors rather than genetic factors. Significant temporal variability was also evident, with expected growth rates declining over the last 10–20 years, while green turtle abundance within the archipelago has increased significantly since the mid-1970s. This inverse relationship between somatic growth rates and population abundance suggests a density-dependent effect on somatic growth dynamics that has also been reported recently for a Caribbean green turtle stock. The Hawaiian green turtle stock is characterised by slow growth rates displaying significant spatial and temporal variation and an immature growth spurt. This is consistent with similar findings for a Great Barrier Reef green turtle stock that also comprises many foraging-ground populations spanning a wide geographic range.

Communicated by P.W. Sammarco, Chauvin