Genetic fingerprinting reveals natal origins of male leatherback turtles encountered in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea
Roden, Suzanne E.
Stewart, Kelly R.
James, Michael C.
Dodge, Kara L.
Dutton, Peter H.
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Understanding population dynamics in broadly distributed marine species with cryptic life history stages is challenging. Information on the population dynamics of sea turtles tends to be biased toward females, due to their accessibility for study on nesting beaches. Males are encountered only at sea; there is little information about their migratory routes, residence areas, foraging zones, and population boundaries. In particular, male leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) are quite elusive; little is known about adult and juvenile male distribution or behavior. The at-sea distribution of male turtles from different breeding populations is not known. Here, 122 captured or stranded male leatherback turtles from the USA, Turkey, France, and Canada (collected 1997–2012) were assigned to one of nine Atlantic basin populations using genetic analysis with microsatellite DNA markers. We found that all turtles originated from western Atlantic nesting beaches (Trinidad 55%, French Guiana 31%, and Costa Rica 14%). Although genetic data for other Atlantic nesting populations were represented in the assignment analysis (St. Croix, Brazil, Florida, and Africa (west and south), none of the male leatherbacks included in this study were shown to originate from these populations. This was an unexpected result based on estimated source population sizes. One stranded turtle from Turkey was assigned to French Guiana, while others that were stranded in France were from Trinidad or French Guiana breeding populations. For 12 male leatherbacks in our dataset, natal origins determined from the genetic assignment tests were compared to published satellite and flipper tag information to provide evidence of natal homing for male leatherbacks, which corroborated our genetic findings. Our focused study on male leatherback natal origins provides information not previously known for this cryptic, but essential component of the breeding population. This method should provide a guideline for future studies, with the ultimate goal of improving management and conservation strategies for threatened and endangered species by taking the male component of the breeding population into account.
This paper is not subject to U.S. copyright. The definitive version was published in Marine Biology 164 (2017): 181, doi:10.1007/s00227-017-3211-0.