Flatback Sea Turtle

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These turtles are often seen taking clown fish on epic adventures to Sydney on the East Australian Current. But their good nature has put them at risk.

Flatback Sea turtles can live for over 230 million years and have been on earth for longer than 50 years. Or maybe that is the other way around.

Unlike Scandinavian Flatpacks, they do not require assembling.

The flatback turtle are named this because they have a very flat upper shell, which is unique from all other sea turtles.

Flatback turtles spend almost all their lives under the water, but have to come up for air a lot. They dive for 5 minutes and then come to the surface to breathe for 3 seconds. They can rest or sleep underwater for several hours at a time but when they are active and diving for food or escaping predators they have to come up for air more often.

The flatback turtle lays its eggs in the sand on the beach, and depending on how well they are buried and how hot they get, this will determine if it is a girl or a boy. Eggs incubated at temperatures below 29ºC will be male, whereas eggs incubated above 29 ºC will be female.

Where do they live?

The flatback turtle feed in the northern coastal regions of Australia as well as Indonesian and Papua New Guinea while all known breeding sites occur only in Australia.

Their smooth shells and paddlelike flippers help them speed through the water as fast as 24 kph. These long-distance travelers have been known to swim up to 5000 km between where they eat and where they nest and lay eggs.

Flatbacks are the only turtle that like to hang out in the murky waters close to shore – which is unusual as most turtles prefer the clear coastal waters, just like humans do.

Tell me about their history

The Flatback turtle can reach up to a massive 1 metre in length and just under 100kg.

The characteristic beak-like mouth is used to shear or crush food.

They eat sea cucumbers, jellyfish, shell-fish and seaweed.

Although sea turtles move swiftly in the ocean, they are slow and defenceless on land. Male sea turtles almost never leave the water. Female sea turtles leave the ocean only to lay eggs and, for most species, nest only at night.

They nest 4 times a year and each time they lay an average of 50 eggs at time. The eggs incubate for about 55 days.

Nesting can take between one and three hours. After a female turtle drags herself up the beach, she hollows out a pit with her back legs and deposits her golf ball-size eggs. When the last egg is laid, she covers the eggs with sand, tamps down the sand with her plastron, and flings more sand about with her flippers to erase any signs of the nest.

After about two months, the hatchling turtles emerge at night. The light reflected off the water from the sky guides them to the sea.

Other lights such as car headlights, street lamps, or lights on buildings near the beach can confuse the baby turtles causing some hatchlings to travel in the wrong direction.

Waiting birds such as herons make fast meals of other hatchlings. Any babies still on the beach in the morning are easily picked off by predators or die in the hot sun. It is thought that when the surviving hatchlings reach maturity, they return to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs.

Fatback turtles are difficult to study because they travel so much, but now scientists can track them with radio transmitters, attached to nesting turtles, to find out what they do.

What is putting them on the edge?

All marine turtles, such as the flatback, are experiencing serious threats to their survival.

Their nesting habitats are lost or changed which makes it hard for them to find the right spots to lay their eggs. Also the coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests where they hang out and eat are also being impacted by humans.

Another big threat is accidental drowning in fishing gear, plastic and other marine debris – they get tangled up, can’t get back to the surface to breathe and drown. Marine debris also kills other marine species like dolphins.

Another killer is when the hatchlings are running for the ocean they get gobbled up by foxes, feral pigs and feral dogs.

What is the vision for them?

Our vision is that we want to secure spots on the beach for them to have their babies, and stop them getting tangled up in fishing nets and other marin debris. In this way we want to make a safe and secure home for the turtles, where they are totally protected and bring thousands of turtle hatchlings safely into the world.

How much money is needed?

The funds you raise will go into practical, on-the-ground work to:

• $20,000: We can patrol beaches and collect marine debris

• $50,000: Engage fishers and communities about the impacts of marine debris

• $200,000+: What we would really love to do is undertake catchment restoration works to improve water quality entering the Great Barrier Reef - This will reduce rubbish and other nutrient before they even get close to impacting the reef or marine turtles

Who is doing the work?

Conservation Volunteers Australia are putting the pieces of the fatback turtle conservation effort together to help get them back into the east Australian current.

Want to do more to help?

If you would like to get your hands dirty and come help us out, visit our website: http://conservationvolunteers.com.au. We have lots of ways you can secure Australia’s wildlife

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