TURTLE PARTS 6: HATCHLINGS

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For the first twelve months following a sea turtle’s emergence from its shell, it is known as a hatchling. Life is a struggle for hatchlings from the very beginning. The first turtles in a nest to emerge from their shells find themselves buried in the beach with a varying number of other turtles and the remaining eggs that have yet to hatch. These little turtles spend the next 2 to 7 days completing the absorption of their yolk and probably waiting on some of the remaining turtles to break out of their shells, before they can emerge from the nest. In order for a hatchling to successfully emerge from the nest, they must have the assistance of some of their nest mates.

Through a cooperative effort the turtles slowly fill with sand the additional space they created by emerging from their eggshells. By flinging their small flippers about they cause the sand above and along the sides of the nest to shift towards the bottom of the nest cavity. Moving the sand about in such a fashion raises the tiny turtles ever closer to the surface until they finally breach the surface of the sand and emerge from the nest.

On rare occasions all of the turtles emerge from the nest simultaneously. But, usually they emerge from the nest on consecutive nights in groups of varying sizes until all the hatchlings – except a few stragglers too weak to make it – have emerged from the nest. Emergence from the nest occurs mostly at night, generally after midnight. This is most likely due to the cooling of the surface sand that occurs during the non-daylight hours and is an indicator to the hatchlings of a preferable time to emerge from their nest.

Once the 6-centimeter long hatchlings have emerged from the nest, they now have to crawl down the beach to the sea. Depending on the level of the tide, this can either be a short crawl or a long exhausting crawl. Hatchlings orient themselves to the sea by visual brightness clues. Under natural conditions the ocean horizon is the brightest area that the hatchling can see following emergence from the nest and will subsequently start crawling towards the sea. Making their way to the ocean successfully appears to be made easier if there are other hatchlings present.

The occurrence of disorientation and the period of time spent resting by a hatchling on their way to the sea decreases when there is a group of them headed for the ocean. They assist one another in maintaining the correct direction and stimulate others to keep moving by bumping into each other. As the hatchlings crawl they use their front flippers in an alternating motion to pull themselves down the beach. This practice immediately changes to a simultaneous motion of the flippers when the hatchlings come in contact with the surf.

Swimming is what the hatchlings are now prepared to do and must do. Waves are the first water they must navigate on their way to offshore currents. It could be as far as 40 or more miles until these currents are reached, but refuge from the open sea and food awaits the hatchlings here. Sargasso grass, also known as turtles grass, and other sea weeds floating in these warm currents provide cover from predators and house various food sources that will nourish the hatchlings during their first year of existence. Little to nothing else is known for certain about the behavior of sea turtles during this first, or so called lost, year of their life.






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