Track the turtles

Those of you who love Neuroscience and Neuroscience only, I must warn you: This is not a Neuroscience-related article! This article is about turtles. And as much as I would like to get an insight into these creatures’ minds, knowing how invasive the current techniques are and that there is not yet a vast literature on this subject, the today’s article will not consider the brain.

Why turtles then? Are they interesting enough for us to mind them? The answer is YES! I am an animal lover, and I believe that all beings of any sort are fascinating and that they deserve to live a happy life. That is not how I became so amazed by the turtles, though.

This summer I volunteered in Kefalonia (one of the Ionian Sea’s Greek islands) for two weeks to work in the only sea turtle conservation there. I spent a wonderful time and I came back with lots of memories and things to share. But the most important thing I gained through my experience there was what I have learnt about sea turtles. The organisation that runs the conservation volunteering projects is called Wildlife Sense.  You can have a look and if you are turtle lovers and enjoy adventures, you should definitely sign up for volunteering work, which I can assure you, is very rewarding.

As volunteers in the egg-laying season, our task was to take many types of measurements, observe and analyse turtle tracks, the sand, the temperature on the beach, the amount of light and estimate light pollution, find turtle nests, relocate (if necessary) these eggs, tag and microchip the adult turtles etc. It might not sound so exciting, but I felt like both a researcher and an animal protector and I acquired a lot of skills needed for future experiences of this sort and much more.

Know your sea turtle

It is important to know the difference between a turtle and a tortoise. The latter are the ones who walk on the ground and can retract all four limbs and head. Turtles have fins (or flippers) and these are not completely retractable. There are 7 species of sea turtles: leatherbacks (the biggest), loggerheads, greens, kemp’s Ridley, olive Ridley, hawkbill and flat-back. On Kefalonia one can only find loggerheads (Caretta caretta) and some say, greens (but we’ve never seen those).

A few anatomy things

Loggerheads are big turtles, with 80 to 110 cm in carapace length and contrary to what some of you might think, they are very strong and can be very aggressive: they can bite and scratch with their claws (one of the volunteers in my team got her trousers ripped off by a turtle). Marine turtles, just like tortoises, terrapins and other reptiles, are covered in scutes and scales. The scales are on the carapace, while the scutes cover the skin and the ones on the head profile are like human fingerprints – they are unique to each turtle. There are some differences between male and female turtles, including size (females tend to be a bit bigger), but to be sure about the gender, look at their tails: males have a tail coming out from underneath the carapace. Nevertheless, some males hide their tails from time to time, giving researchers a hard time about gender identification.

Laying eggs

When a turtle needs to lay her eggs, some very interesting things happen: she usually returns to the same beach she was born on, even though they travel long distances and get in the ocean throughout their lifetime. For that, she uses something called geomagnetism which involves Jacobson’s organ for olfaction and the geomagnetic orientation trigeminal system. When she comes out of the sea, a turtle pays a lot of attention to the environment: she wants to make sure there are no predators and that the sand is good enough, so she is very focused on anything that is moving, as well as noises and lights.

Loggerheads alternate their tracks when they move on sand and the tracks are a good indicator for the directions to and from the sea. When they start digging the nest, marine turtles use their front flippers to remove the sand around them, while their bodies form a distinctive (and very relevant for researchers) shape in the sand – a body pit (or an extended body pit). They lay around 100-120 eggs, but due to external factors only few of them (1 in 1000) can reach maturity and lay eggs. Temperature determines the embryo’s sex – eggs kept warmer become females – but it can also affect the embryo’s survival. Therefore, the depth of the whole is very important (16-34 cm from the top five eggs), because it significantly influences the temperature of the egg chamber.

It is said that turtles cry after they lay their eggs. There is a grain of truth here, the turtle does indeed drop a few tears, but this is not because she is sad to leave her babies out in the nowhere (even though, that does not mean she has no feelings of this sort, we do not yet know). It all comes down to maintaining the salt balance and those tears actually help the turtles excrete the excess of salt in their eyes.

After she lays her eggs, the turtle returns to the sea and she might never see her babies again. The hatchlings come out of the eggs after one month and a half-two months and orient themselves towards the sea using light (the sea is the brightest thing on the beach if there’s moon light to reflect in it). They show a tropotactic behaviour (they compare intensities in both eyes and move accordingly). Light pollution from artificial lights on the beach is fatal for many hatchlings (amongst other factors like predators), because the poor babies often get confused and don’t know where to go. Sea turtles do not perceive red light, so volunteers were advised to use red lights when looking for turtles at night, in order not to disturb the egg-laying process. The wavelength of light perceived by marine turtles usually ranges between 360 and 600 nm; green turtles see yellow light and do not mind it, while loggerheads are xanthophobic (averse to yellow-orange light). Once in the sea, baby turtles can encounter many other dangers, but if they survive, they swim to other seas and oceans and they can live up to 60 years.

A sea turtle story’ link – A MUST WATCH

As for genetics…

It was discovered that male turtles do not have an SRY gene on their Y chromosome, although the presence of another gene, the SOX9 gene, influences the formation of testies.  Steroidogenic genes are also thought to be involved in sex determination, along with the DAX1 nuclear receptor protein (encoded by an ‘antitestis’ gene) and the anti-müllerian hormone (for testis differentiation).

Marine turtles, and turtles in general, are still a mystery for biologists, but what has been discovered so far about them did nothing but prove how marvellous these animals are. If what you have read in this article aroused your curiosity, I can only hope you will allow the turtles to amaze you in the future as well.

Below, I have inserted a link to a very interesting paper that raises awareness about relocating eggs and explains it from a different point of view.

For further information:

Lutz et al., 2003. The biology of Sea Turtle, Vol. 2. CRC Press


Wildlife Sense link


  1. isurupriyaranga · August 7, 2015

    Oh Iasmina, What a great job!
    I read your whole article and check all the links without leaving any pose. I forgot all of my work which I was doing. You have given a clear idea about this innocent animal species of turtles to everyone (if there is someone who is really new to this subject, anyone who have zero knowledge about turtles, also can have a great idea with higher interest).

    This should be appreciated! (This time you changed your subject. But no matter, everyone who loves science should be a nature lover also. if not, life on the Earth will not exist anymore) your way of writing is really beautiful and clear. And you always try to add more links (including research papers and video) to surf more and more about the subject, if the readers have a thirsty of curiosity.

    There are few things really I want to find out. Specially,” How long baby turtles can stay in sand, after they came out from the eggs?” because they reach Oxygen when they in eggs but when they came out, they started to breathe through lungs and they still under the sand layer. So, this should be something to find. May be one day I’ll do it 😉 or we can do it together. (Is it a stupid question??? )

    Finally, I wish you all the very best to write more and more articles and be one of the best scientific blog writers in the world!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iasmina Hornoiu · August 8, 2015

      This is a very interesting question! Usually, turtles can stay without oxygen for aproximately twelve hours or even more than that, depending on the species and the outside temperature. As I am sure you well know, while under water turtles do not use oxygen, but they do stick their heads out of the water from time to time in order to breathe.
      Now, the eggs inside a nest are placed at different depths (usually between 16 and 34 cm) and it is said that the ones at lower temperatures (below 29-30 Celsius) hatch slower than the ones at higher temperature (over 29-30 Celsius). In reality, all eggs inside the nest hatch at the same time, and this is due to the fact that the eggs communicate with each other using chemical signals.
      You were right, embryos do use oxygen while inside the eggs, and when the hatchlings come out of the eggs they still use oxygen. They actually come out of the eggs when the oxygen levels in the egg chamber become low. So, they come out at the same time and start using that low-level oxygen, but because they consume a lot of energy, they also use an anaerobic metabolism based on lactate. Thus, they manage to get to the surface 🙂
      I hope this was clear enough. Thank you a lot for your interest!

      Liked by 1 person

      • isurupriyaranga · August 9, 2015

        Really your last paragraph have given the perfect answer which I was looking 🙂 Thank you !

        And again, I should appreciate this…. without giving just an answer, you have given a full description. And also you have shown that you are a good blogger with replying as soon as possible with your best of best.

        here there is something to share here.. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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