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Hawaiian hawksbills: a distinct and isolated nesting colony in the Central North Pacific Ocean revealed by mitochondrial DNA

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Although the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) nesting colony in Hawaiʻi may constitute one of the smallest hawksbill nesting populations in the world, it is also the largest in the U.S. Pacific Islands and the Central North Pacific Ocean. The isolated nature of the Hawaiian Archipelago has raised interest in the genetic characterization of the population, yet research remains lacking. In this study we use mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to provide the first genetic characterization of nesting (n = 108) and foraging (n = 29) hawksbills in the Hawaiian Islands. We combine our data with sequences previously published from the West and East Pacific to evaluate the genetic distinctiveness of the nesting assemblage in Hawaiʻi, and to gain insights into the origin of hawksbills found at foraging grounds around the archipelago. We found strong differentiation (FST > 0.238, P-value < 0.001) between the Hawaiʻi hawksbill nesting colony and those in the West and East Pacific, indicating the Hawaiʻi nesting colony is demographically isolated and warrants recognition as a distinct management unit. We also found evidence that the Hawaiʻi nesting colony is likely the primary source of juvenile hawksbills occurring at foraging grounds around the archipelago, conforming to the natal foraging philopatry model and suggesting that hawksbills in Hawaiʻi generally constitute a closed population. Despite these findings, we also found evidence of potential dispersal of turtles from the Hawaiian nesting colony to foraging grounds in the West Pacific. This study lends insights into the life-history of hawksbills around Hawaiʻi that can facilitate effective management decision making.

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We recognize the Hawai‘i Island Hawksbill Project, World Turtle Trust, and Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park for monitoring and skin sampling activities carried out on Hawaiʻi Island, as well as Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund for activities carried out on Maui. These projects were largely supported via financial contributions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Islands Regional Office under award numbers NA10, NA15, NA15NMF4540116, NA10NMF4540137, NA09NMF4540158, NA08NMF4540524, NA07NMF4540171, NA15NMF4540113, NA14NMF4540135, NA13NMF4540072, NA12NMF4540208. We also thank the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Hawaiʻi State Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawaiʻi Marine Animal Response, Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute and Division of Aquatic Resources. We are indebted to Larry Katahira, Will Seitz, Skippy Hau, Bill Gilmartin, Kelly Peebles, Eldridge Naboa, Shandell Brunson, Shawn Murakawa, Christi Feeter, Meghan Soukup, Bridget McBride, Donna Brown, and the hundreds of dedicated volunteers that have participated in hawksbill monitoring over the years. Many thanks to Amy Lanci, Amy Frey, Vicki Pease, Gabriela Serra-Valente for their assistance with curation, processing, and laboratory analysis of samples accessioned into the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research (MMSTR) Collection at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s La Jolla Laboratory in California. Thanks to Michael Jensen for input on data analysis and Irene Kelly for supporting field work. We appreciate the feedback received from two anonymous reviewers, which helped to improve this manuscript. All hawksbill handling procedures were approved (SWPI_2013-05R) by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee in accordance with the requirements pertaining to animal subject protections within the Public Health Service Policy and United States Department of Agriculture Animal Welfare Regulations. Research was carried out under USFWS permits # TE8292509, TE739923, TE829250, TE739350, and TE72088A and State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources Special Activity Permits.

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Gaos, A.R., LaCasella, E.L., Kurpita, L. et al. Hawaiian hawksbills: a distinct and isolated nesting colony in the Central North Pacific Ocean revealed by mitochondrial DNA. Conserv Genet 21, 771–783 (2020).

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