How Swimsuits and Treadmills help Scientists Study Baby Sea Turtles

The first-of-its-kind study investigates how light pollution may impact the reptiles' endurance.

By Elaina Zachos
Published 23 Dec 2017, 07:53 GMT
A hawksbill sea turtle swims with baitfish.
A hawksbill sea turtle swims with baitfish.
Photograph by Jim Abernethy, National Geographic Creative

How tough are baby sea turtles? Scientists recently tested the endurance of hatchlings using mini treadmills and special swimsuits—all in the name of science.

In the wild, the newborn reptiles use the bright, low horizon of the ocean to navigate away from the beach and into open waters within 24 hours of hatching.

But light pollution seems to disorient these tiny night crawlers, making them spend more time on land—and thus rendering them more vulnerable to threats. Instead of scooting to the sea within a few minutes, disoriented turtles can sometimes wander on land for hours. 

So a pair of researchers from Florida Atlantic University decided to investigate if all this land crawling might tire out the confused hatchlings and make it harder for them to swim.

In one of the first studies of its kind, biologists Karen Pankaew and Sarah Milton reinforced the idea that sea turtles are hardy creatures. But they're still in danger: of the seven sea turtle species that swim our seas, all face potential threats, and two are critically endangered.

Crawling By the Numbers

The team first collected 150 hatchlings from wild loggerhead and green sea turtle nests in Palm Beach County, Florida. (After the study, the hatchlings were released back into their natural habitat.)

Then, the researchers placed the turtles one at a time on a miniature treadmill they'd created in a laboratory, with an artificial light source at the front that attracted the animals in that direction.

Drawn to the glow, the hatchlings walked at a steady pace for 656 feet in one experiment and 1,640 feet in another, occasionally pausing to rest. The distances were chosen to simulate the how far the animals march on the beach.

Following the treadmill exercise, the scientists outfitted the turtles with specially designed swimming harnesses and lowered them into a water-filled tank. There, the hatchlings paddled while the scientists observed them for the next two hours. 

To gauge the turtles' level of exhaustion, the scientists measured oxygen levels in the air, as well as the animals' breathing rates, blood glucose levels, and plasma lactate production—indicators of energy exertion. The team also recorded the creatures' stroke rates in the tank.

"We wanted to see how much oxygen they were using because that was a measure of, essentially, their endurance," says Milton, whose study appeared in November in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The results surprised them: The long periods spent crawling didn't exhaust the turtles so much that they couldn't paddle in the water for the two-hour swimming period.

"These animals are resilient," says David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, who was not involved in the study. "They still had the ability to swim."

Under Control

For an experimental control, the researchers also observed wild green and loggerhead turtle hatchlings on Florida's Boca Raton beach, which has turtle nesting grounds in both light-polluted and naturally dark areas.

Like the hatchlings in the lab, turtles in the light-polluted parts of the beach alternated between crawling and resting, increasing the amount of time on the beach. Non-disoriented turtles in naturally dark areas didn't rest at all, making a beeline directly for the ocean.

A green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, hatchling makes its way to the sea.
Photograph by Norbert Wu, Minden Pictures, National Geographic Creative

Ultimately, the lab turtles' long rest periods mean that in the wild, they'd spend more time on the beach—making them more susceptible to predators, dehydration, and other threats.

Beach Dangers

For the lucky ones that do make it to the surf, sea turtles still have to swim 30 miles offshore before they're pulled into the safety of the jet stream, Godfrey notes. 

A limitation of the study is it only analyzed the hatchlings' swimming abilities for a couple hours, he says, adding it provides valuable data for conservationists and government authorities to protect the threatened creatures.

"As conservationists, some of the most important tools that we have … are the tools of science and peer-reviewed studies," Godfrey says.

Milton says she was only permitted to test the turtles for the short period, but studying the reptiles swimming for a full 24 hours would be more informative.

And although the turtles weren't exhausted in the water, the study supports the theory that light pollution causes them to spend more time on land and opens them up to other threats, Milton adds.

"Even if the sea turtle hatchlings are not as exhausted," she says, "that increased time on the beach is still detrimental."


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2024 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved