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Genetic fingerprinting reveals natal origins of male leatherback turtles encountered in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea

Abstract

Understanding population dynamics in broadly distributed marine species with cryptic life history stages is challenging. Information on the population dynamics of sea turtles tends to be biased toward females, due to their accessibility for study on nesting beaches. Males are encountered only at sea; there is little information about their migratory routes, residence areas, foraging zones, and population boundaries. In particular, male leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) are quite elusive; little is known about adult and juvenile male distribution or behavior. The at-sea distribution of male turtles from different breeding populations is not known. Here, 122 captured or stranded male leatherback turtles from the USA, Turkey, France, and Canada (collected 1997–2012) were assigned to one of nine Atlantic basin populations using genetic analysis with microsatellite DNA markers. We found that all turtles originated from western Atlantic nesting beaches (Trinidad 55%, French Guiana 31%, and Costa Rica 14%). Although genetic data for other Atlantic nesting populations were represented in the assignment analysis (St. Croix, Brazil, Florida, and Africa (west and south), none of the male leatherbacks included in this study were shown to originate from these populations. This was an unexpected result based on estimated source population sizes. One stranded turtle from Turkey was assigned to French Guiana, while others that were stranded in France were from Trinidad or French Guiana breeding populations. For 12 male leatherbacks in our dataset, natal origins determined from the genetic assignment tests were compared to published satellite and flipper tag information to provide evidence of natal homing for male leatherbacks, which corroborated our genetic findings. Our focused study on male leatherback natal origins provides information not previously known for this cryptic, but essential component of the breeding population. This method should provide a guideline for future studies, with the ultimate goal of improving management and conservation strategies for threatened and endangered species by taking the male component of the breeding population into account.

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Acknowledgements

Samples were collected under ESA Section 10(a)(1)(A) permits issued by NMFS to the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (#1260, #1324, #1429 and #1552) and the University of New Hampshire (#1557 and #15672). These samples were imported from the high seas under the authority of the USFWS CITES Permit #US045532/9. Sample collection in Nova Scotia, Canada, was supported by funding from Canadian Wildlife Federation, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, George Cedric Metcalf Foundation, Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (USA), National Marine Fisheries Service (USA), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and World Wildlife Fund Canada. Funding for US samples was provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance. Funding support for this analysis and for Kelly R. Stewart was provided by a Lenfest Ocean Program Grant. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lenfest Ocean Program or The Pew Charitable Trusts. We thank the Aquarium La Rochelle SAS Network and the Centre d’Etudes et de Soins pour les Tortues Marines for coordinating collection of samples from the Atlantic French Network: Réseau Tortues Marines Atlantique Est. For help with sample collection at sea in Canada, we thank S. Craig, B. Fricker, H. Fricker, J. Fricker, W. George, B. Mitchell, and M. Nicholson. We also thank D. Archibald, L. Bennett, C. Harvey-Clark, and K. Martin for stranding response and sample preparation in Canada. We are grateful to M. Lutcavage, A. Myers, C. Merigo, C. Innis, T. Norton, M. Dodge, G. Purmont, M. Leach, B. Sharp, S. Landry, T. Sheehan, V. Saba, M. Murphy, G. Tomasian, N. Fragoso, K. Sampson, R. Smolowitz, K. Hirokawa, J. Casey, S. Leach, J. Wilson, and E. Eldredge for associated field assistance in the USA. We thank the following individuals and organizations: in the USA, Lisa Belskis, Wendy Teas, Kate Sardi Sampson, Donna Shaver, Bob Prescott, Anthony Amos, and Sara McNulty, New England Aquarium and Center for Coastal Studies, and in Turkey, Ertan Taskavak. For laboratory, technical, and logistical assistance at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, we thank Gabriela Serra-Valente, Amy Lanci, Amy Frey, Robin LeRoux, Amanda Bowman, and Victoria Pease. Thoughtful review and ideas that contributed to the original draft were provided by Michael Jensen and Amy Frey, while Erin LaCasella contributed maps made using Maptool at seaturtle.org. We sincerely thank the reviewers of this paper as well as the handling editor.

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Roden, S.E., Stewart, K.R., James, M.C. et al. Genetic fingerprinting reveals natal origins of male leatherback turtles encountered in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Mar Biol 164, 181 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-017-3211-0

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