VIMS tags and releases green sea turtle

  • measure.jpg
     VIMS marine technician Alison Smith works with graduate student Diane Tulipani to measure a juvenile green sea turtle.  
  • barnacles.jpg
     This juvenile green sea turtle measured 32 cm long (12.6 inches) and weighed 9 pounds. Several large barnacles are growing on its shell.  
  • Serrated Beak
    Serrated Beak  A serrated upper beak, used in eating sea grass, is a telling characteristic of green sea turtles.  
  • plastron.jpg
     The turtle's lower shell, or plastron, comprises a series of fused skeletal plates. The length of the tail is used to sex green sea turtles, but this method is difficult with juveniles.  
  • towels.jpg
     Researchers handle turtles gently and cover them with wet towels to keep the creatures cool and comfortable.  
  • release.jpg
     VIMS researcher Alison Smith prepares to release a tagged green sea turtle into the shallow waters of the York River.  
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Researchers with the Sea Turtle Stranding Program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science today tagged and released a juvenile green sea turtle into the York River.

Diane Tulipani, the VIMS graduate student who assists with the program, says green turtles are primarily a tropical species and that the presence of this individual “is unusual for this time of year and this far north in the Bay.” Green sea turtles are distributed through the tropics worldwide, with the nearest concentration in the Caribbean.

The turtle was captured incidentally in a pound net in Mathews on Tuesday and brought to VIMS after it was first examined by local veterinarian Dr. Bob George.  At 9 pounds and just over a foot long, the turtle is definitely a juvenile. Adults can grow 3- to 4-feet long and weigh upwards of 400 pounds. The sex is difficult to determine in turtles of this small size.

Dr. George, who has consulted with local researchers for more than 30 years concerning the health of stranded sea turtles and other large vertebrates, says the turtle appears healthy and is in fact “as fat as a pig.” The species takes its name from the color of that fat, which acquires a green tint from photosynthetic pigments within sea grasses—its preferred food.

VIMS researchers tagged the small turtle by inserting a PIT tag, for “passive integrated transponder,” beneath the skin of its right flipper. This tiny microprocessor, the same kind used to identify household pets, transmits a unique identification number to a hand-held reader. Subsequent recapture of the tagged turtle will provide information about its movements since release.

Tulipani says the tagged turtle is almost certain to head south, and that local water temperatures are still warm enough for it to make its way out of the Bay and into the coastal ocean.

She remains uncertain as to the factors that may have brought the turtle so far from its normal haunts.

Green turtles have been found as far north as New England, and are observed fairly frequently in Virginia’s coastal waters off Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore. Stranding of green sea turtles, due to injury or cold stunning, occurs fairly frequently in the lower Bay.

The presence of a green sea turtle in mid-Bay is more unusual, perhaps occurring every 5-7 years. The Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response team recovered a large female green turtle entangled in fishing gear in 2007 near Virginia Beach.