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DNA study explores sea turtle lineage, outlook
Loggerhead Turtle - photo by Photo provided.
BRUNSWICK — The beach is empty, but the deserted stretch was obviously full of activity the night before, as evidenced by turtle crawl tracks zigzagging from the surf to nest sites in the dunes. A joint research effort can now tell biologists which turtles made these tracks.
Loggerhead sea turtles are returning to Georgia’s beaches and so are their offspring and possibly even the next generation of offspring. New research methods developed by researchers at the Applied Conservation Genetics Lab at the University of Georgia are allowing the Department of Natural Resources to identify the nesting turtles and their offspring as they return each year.
The analysis, based on DNA samples taken from the turtles’ eggs, will help determine the population structure and genetic diversity of loggerheads nesting on the Georgia and Florida coasts.
Genetic diversity is important for adaptation to environmental changes. A certain amount of diversity is necessary for the health, longevity and even survival of a species.
“We’re really excited about the possibilities the new genetic markers and technique have unlocked,” UGA doctoral student Brian Shamblin said. “In partnership with Georgia DNR and cooperators all along the Georgia coast, we’re generating nesting data on a scale unimaginable a few years ago.”
Loggerheads, federally listed as threatened, are Georgia’s primary nesting sea turtle. Research from a DNA pilot study done in 2006 revealed four instances of mother-daughter pairs nesting on the beaches.
“This is an important development because loggerheads do not become sexually mature until sometime between 30 and 35 years of age,” Mark Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division said. “If you have a mother-daughter pair nesting on the coast, then you know the mom is at least 60-70 years old and has been reproductively active for 30 years or longer. That is an incredibly long period to be reproductively active.”
DNA samples from the nesting turtles are entered into a database at the UGA genetics laboratory. The database will help researchers determine differences in the population.
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