This month Ben Ranelli, Seasonal Biological Science Technician at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, tells us all about loggerhead sea turtles, the species of sea turtle seen most frequently on the Seashore!
Icons of Cape Hatteras: Conservation of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle
By Ben Ranelli
Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides a sanctuary for five different species of sea turtles, although its undisturbed beaches are more ideally suited to the loggerhead sea turtle than any other. While most sea turtle species consume a mix of plants and animals, loggerhead sea turtles are almost entirely carnivorous, foraging for crabs, mollusks, jellyfish and only very rarely eating aquatic vegetation. Their powerful, crushing beaks likely gave the loggerhead sea turtles their name; “loggerhead” derives from an old phrase meaning “an extremely large head.” Though their heads may be large proportional to their body, the three foot long, 250-pound loggerhead sea turtles are mid-sized compared to other sea turtle species that nest on Cape Hatteras.
On average, they are approximately one foot longer than the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and around one foot shorter than the green sea turtle. What makes loggerhead sea turtles’ biology truly special, however, is their ability to consistently nest farther north than other sea turtles. By far, loggerhead sea turtles nest in greater numbers on Cape Hatteras National Seashore than any other sea turtle species.
Across Cape Hatteras National Seashore, over 300 loggerhead sea turtle nests have been discovered and protected by the National Park Service in 2021. Although nests face the risk of being flooded during extreme high tides, and predators like ghost crabs threaten both eggs and hatchlings, more nests mean there is a far greater chance that more sea turtles will successfully hatch and make it to the ocean. And with approximately 100 eggs laid in each loggerhead sea turtle nest, there are almost 30,000 chances for hatchlings to succeed.
While the 2021 season at Cape Hatteras National Seashore has seen high nest counts, the worldwide population of loggerhead sea turtles is still on the decline. It is because of the sea turtles’ protections and how people respect the beach that Cape Hatteras National Seashore is helping to reverse the downward trend.
In addition to the National Park Service, every visitor to the Seashore plays a role in keeping the beach a safe place for sea turtles to nest. To leave an open path for sea turtles to crawl on shore, for instance, anything carried onto the beach should be carried off at the end of the day. If a female turtle encounters an obstacle like an abandoned beach chair, then she may turn back to the ocean instead of laying her eggs. Vehicles too may cause nesting sea turtles to return to the ocean due to their disorienting lights and sounds. Following the Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan guidelines that all vehicles should be off the beach at 9:00 PM during sea turtle nesting season ensures that female turtles crawling onto the beach remain safe.
Young loggerhead sea turtles may also be harmed by human activity. Disturbing a nest could damage eggs and hatchlings or even cause hatchlings to leave the nest prematurely, becoming exhausted in the heat of the day or easily seen by a predator. Visitors and their pets should protect sea turtles by staying on the outside of the symbolic fencing the National Park Service uses to mark each nest. Once hatched, loggerhead sea turtles navigate by following the bright reflection of the moon and stars over the ocean, so artificial light on the beach can affect their sense of direction. Beach campfires, which produce enough light to distract the young turtles, should therefore only be made in designated areas six hundred feet away from marked sea turtle nests. By respecting the beach, every visitor is helping these newly hatched sea turtles to thrive.
To visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore is to participate in an ancient story that has played out since before the park was created, before Blackbeard sailed the coast and before any human footprint could be found on North Carolina. When everyone plays their part in protecting the beach, we return it back to a time when the stars were brighter and the loggerhead sea turtle did not face so many daunting challenges to its survival. If everyone continues to play their part, the same moon that guided loggerhead sea turtles to the ocean so many years ago will continue long into the future, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore will always remain a sanctuary for the loggerhead sea turtle.
To learn more about sea turtles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, visit nps.gov/caha/learn/nature/seaturtles.htm_____________________________________________________________________________
Ben Ranelli is a seasonal biological science technician working in the Ocracoke district of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Originally from Connecticut, he began working for the National Park Service after previously conducting research at the University of Connecticut and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Working with birds, mammals, and turtles across forests, mountains and seashores, he has dedicated his time to understanding and sharing the incredible diversity of wildlife in the eastern United States.