UBC PhD candidate T. Todd Jones has pioneered a soft rubber harness and a recipe that enabled him to raise and study leatherback turtles in captivity for more than two years -- a feat only one other team of scientists have achieved.
Jones’s study, however, is the only one to raise more than one leatherback in captivity from hatchling to juvenile and generated new information crucial for the conservation of the critically endangered species.
“We learned that a female leatherback could reach sexual maturity in as little as twelve years, compared to 20-30 years for other sea turtles, provided that food sources are abundant,” says Jones. The study’s findings on leatherback behaviour, diet and physiology will help scientists and conservationists determine leatherback foraging areas and understand the timing of their migrations.
“The lessons learned from captive rearing will also help create protocols for rehabilitating adult leatherbacks that are stranded or caught in commercial fishing gear,” says Jones.
Leatherbacks have been around for more than 100 million years and survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. Approximately 50,000 leatherbacks remain in the wild; Pacific leatherbacks could go extinct in our lifetime. In the wild only one in 1,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood due to a combination of natural causes and human activities. An adult leatherback turtle can reach 250-550 kg, with the largest male recorded at 918 kg about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
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