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A Loggerhead Turtle being rehabilitated at Taronga Wildlife Hospital may help unlock the secret migration habits of marine turtles.

Subject to final medical clearance, a young turtle which has been in care for the past year will be released with a satellite tracker attached to its shell, providing researchers with valuable data about turtle migration habits.

Taronga Wildlife Hospital Manager, Libby Hall, said: “Very little is known about the journey of Loggerhead Turtles once they leave Australian shores. They hatch on beaches in Queensland and are at sea for up to 30 years, before returning to the same beach to lay their eggs. Where they go and what they do in those years is pretty much a mystery.”

“This period of a juvenile turtle’s life is known as ‘The Lost Years’.  Its astonishing that these creatures have been on our planet for more than 200 million years, but there is still so much we don’t know about them,” said Libby.

Until recently, it was thought that turtles were swept along with the ocean currents, but research in the North Pacific has revealed that turtles are not just passive passengers but some of nature’s most accomplished navigators.

The young Loggerhead arrived at Taronga Zoo in March 2010 after washing up on Corrimal Beach, in need of veterinary care.

“The turtle was tiny when it arrived. It could literally fit into the palm of my hand and tipped the scales around 62 grams,” said Libby.

It had  a fracture to its left front flipper, and over the past year, which included a stint at Sydney Aquarium, veterinary staff have been concentrating on ensuring the turtle has full mobility whilst giving it time to grow larger, ensuring it has best chance of survival in the open oceans.

Thanks to a diet of squid and shellfish, the turtle now weighs over five kilograms. If the turtle keeps improving daily, can confidently swim and use its flipper properly, it will be released off the Queensland coast and its journey satellite tracked. Last year, Taronga tracked two Loggerhead Turtles which were rehabilitated at the Zoo and released off Lord Howe Island.

“One of the turtle’s trackers never sent any data, but the other one swam all the way down to New Zealand and around the north island. It was so exciting tracking its journey and knowing where it was. Normally we release the turtles and just hope and pray they’re doing well, so to be able to see where it was going was fantastic!” said Libby.

The implications of this research could be huge. Similar studies have played a vital role in protecting many marine species. By creating ‘turtle maps’, researchers in the North Pacific have worked with the fishing industry to reduce activity during peak turtle migration periods.

There are seven species of marine turtles and six occur in Australian waters. Marine turtles are listed as a species of conservation concern in the IUCN Redlist.  Main threats to turtles include entanglement in fishing nets and accidental by-catch of long line fishing. Boat strikes are also common.

May 23 is World Turtle Day, an international day aimed at creating awareness for these endangered species.

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