It all started (at least on my end) with reading a post on the CT birdlist about some Nelson’s Sparrows at the Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center in Milford, CT. At the bottom of the post was a single line about a leatherback sea turtle that had washed up on the beach. I forwarded that email on to our (Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History) collections manager of herpetology and ichthyology, Greg Watkins-Colwell.
Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are large turtles that can be found throughout the world. Not only is it the largest turtle in the world, it’s one of the largest reptiles in the world, only three ‘croccodiles’ are bigger. Leatherbacks are different from other turtles having a different type of shell, as their name implies. The latin root for the name Dermo indicates skin and chelys means shell, so they have a ‘shell’ that is covered by skin. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that… look for a future blog post.
On October 1st in the waters off of Bridgeport reports of a floating leatherback turtle were recorded. This is almost certainly the same body that washed ashore in Milford and spotted on October 8th (a week later). In the few days that would follow the Yale Peabody Museum staff worked with the local, state, and federal departments to obtain permission to collect the turtle as a research and educational specimen. The government shutdown, with Fish and Wildlife staff on furlough, hindered a rapid response. Finally, everything was set to collect the turtle on Thursday morning.
Check out local news cast News 12′s video: http://connecticut.news12.com/news/giant-sea-turtle-washes-up-on-milford-beach-peabody-museum-wants-to-study-carcass-1.6226535
Making a quick stop at the site on Wednesday evening, everything looked good to go. The leatherback was below the high tide line but was being partially buried and there was no real threat of it being taken away by the tide. What met us on Thursday morning was shocking. At some point over night someone had poached the turtles head. We arrived to find the head had been cut off the turtles body. Leatherback sea turtles are an endangered species in the United States, making the poaching illegal with substantial penalties.
So, Why is the head such a big deal? The most important reason is that it makes the specimen whole. For educational purposes the head can illustrate the general form of this specialized jellyfish eater. For more scientific purposes the head can be used to study brain size and vascilurization of turtles. Comparing minute anatomical details from this specimen with others could help anser questions like: Do leatherbacks brains grow at different rates? Are the muscles involved in eating different or work differently on leatherback turtles? How well do Leatherback turtles see? and many more that have yet to even be asked.
Although, there is still a lot that scientists don’t know about the leatherback sea turtle, there are a few interesting facts. Leatherbacks, although reptiles, are able to survive in colder water temperature by producing their own body heat, likely because they rarely stop moving and create muscle heat. Leatherbacks are one of the deepest diving marine animals and can stay under water for up to 70 minutes (MOST dives are only 3-9 minutes). Also, We know that their primary food source is jellyfish! The major causes of non-natural deaths in Dermochelys are due to ingestion of plastic bags or balloons and boat propeller strikes. Think about that before letting your plastic shopping bag blow away.
How did we get the turtle off the beach? Once we arrived on scene we began to shovel sand away from the sides of the turtle to make it easier to access the body. The city of Milford was anxious to get the animal off the beach and willing to help science by supplying a front loader tractor to scoop up the turtle. By this point the turtle was very decomposed, the rear half of the leatherback was pretty much falling apart. And Yes, it smelled… a lot. Once the turtle was in the tractor it was carried to a pick-up truck and dropped into the bed.
A follow up from News 12 about the head: http://connecticut.news12.com/news/head-of-giant-milford-sea-turtle-stolen-1.6233882
WTNH video with removal footage: http://www.wtnh.com/news/new-haven-cty/dead-sea-turtle-washes-ashore-in-milford
From there the turtle was transported to a piece of Yale property that isn’t open to the public. With very large animals, often the best way to prepare them for skeletal use is by using nature. We wrapped the turtle in mesh to inhibit large mammals from upsetting the body and buried it underground. The leatherback will now slowly decay, the bacteria on and in the body have already started to breakdown the soft tissues. Insects, worms, and other small animals will aid in the process by cleaning/ eating the soft tissue away from the bone. After a year or so, staff will return to the burial site to excavate the skeleton for research. Maybe someone will want to use the bones to study flipper movement with the carpals or spine development of the vertebrae.
If you know anything about the poached turtle head, please let us or the authorities know. (comment anonymously even) I hope that it is someone who didn’t realize what the legal aspect was and didn’t mean to commit a crime. I also hope that it is someone who can realize how scientifically and educationally valuable the skull is to science.
For additional images from the day please visit the original blog at the link below.
Information was obtained by Wikipedia as viewed 14 October 2013 and by some of the scholarly articles on the wiki page references. Additional information is taken from personal communications with Yale Peabody Museum collections manager, Greg Watkins-Colwell.