Key Unsolved Mysteries

Although there has been substantial study of marine turtles over the past 50+ years, their complex lives and elusive behaviors mean that some key questions about their natural history remain unanswered.

The list below provides a glimpse of the primary unsolved mysteries of marine turtle natural history. These unanswered questions are intended to highlight the great unknowns about marine turtles and to help guide research effort, focus investments, and serve as a framework for public relations efforts to generate interest in conserving marine turtles and their habitats.

This list represents the results of an MTSG membership-wide survey followed by a synthesis process conducted by the participants of the 3rd Burning Issues Working Group meeting held in Washington, DC (August 18-20, 2006). We believe these to be seven critically important areas upon which we should focus our research investment and intellectual powers, in order to give our community the tools it needs to prevent marine turtle extinctions and avoid irreparable damage to marine turtle habitats.

Where do marine turtles spend their first years of life?
The moment hatchlings dive headfirst into the sea, they embark on a mysterious journey into the open ocean fraught with hazards, not to be seen again for several years. Where they go and how they get there remains a great mystery and unveiling the details of this enigmatic period is essential to reducing mortality during their vulnerable first years.

What are the ecological roles of marine turtles, and how many are needed to fulfill those roles?
Marine ecosystems are intricate webs of life, with each species dependent on others for survival. Relatively little is known about the complex parts that marine turtles play in the global marine ecosystem. Unraveling their roles as consumers, producers, predators, and prey is vital to understanding why and how to protect them from extinction.

What proportion of male to female marine turtles is necessary to maintain a healthy population?
Conservation priorities are based upon how healthy and stable a population is. For marine turtles, it is still unknown what constitutes a healthy population. Understanding the proportion of males to females necessary for a population to stabilize and grow will help guide conservation efforts on a global scale.

How do marine turtles sense their environment?
Marine turtles can locate translucent jellyfish at the surface of the ocean and identify sharks as potential predators. How they accomplish these feats is still largely unknown. Understanding marine turtles’ basic sensory abilities will aid in mitigating many of the hazards they face around the world.

How do marine turtles navigate?
Marine turtles traverse the globe, crossing entire ocean basins to locate feeding and mating grounds. Many return to the exact beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs. Just how they navigate the seas, seeming to know exactly how, when, and where to go, is a mystery that continues to elude scientists and conservationists.

What causes fibropapillomas?
Fibropapillomas represent a pandemic of tumorous growths on marine turtle populations from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The cause of this debilitating, often fatal illness and the reason for its rapid spread around the world is one of the areas of greatest concern for researchers and conservationists.

How will climate change affect marine turtles?
Climate change threatens to alter the world in unpredictable ways, and globally migrating marine turtles are no exception. Potential consequences for marine turtles range from changes in population structure (the sex of hatchlings is dependent on incubation temperature) to loss of nesting beaches as sea levels rise.