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After playing part in sex study, Sassy the turtle released to the open sea

11:45 AM, Jan 15, 2014   |    comments
Conservancy education director David Webb releases a juvenile loggerhead sea turtle in Gullivan Bay south of Marco Island on Tuesday. / Jack Hardman/The News-Press
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(News-press.com) - Having done her bit for science and education, Sassy the loggerhead sea turtle got her first-ever taste of her natural habitat Tuesday morning.

Sassy was collected as a hatchling during the summer of 2011 on Sanibel Island, spent two months as part of an ongoing Florida Atlantic University sex-ratio study, then spent time at Mote Aquarium and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida before being released in Gullivan Bay south of Marco Island.

As Conservancy education director David Webb lowered the 35-pound juvenile turtle into the opaque green water from a flats boat, most of the journalists aboard a nearby pontoon boat simultaneously responded, "Awwwwww."

Loggerheads are an endangered species, and for Jeanette Wyneken, an associate professor in FAU's Department of Biological Sciences, the sea turtle wasn't Sassy; it was a number, part of a study to determine the ratio of male to female loggerheads hatching on Florida beaches.

"When a species is listed as threatened or endangered, the goal is to figure out what the problems are that led to their numbers being so low and then how to solve the problems," Wyneken said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "For loggerheads, we have to understand what led to the lack of production of hatchlings or lack of hatchlings that live to be adults."

One issue in the production question is the ratio of female-to-male hatchlings.

Female loggerheads lay eggs in nests they've dug on beaches, and the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the hatchlings: The warmer the nest, the more females will emerge (turtle people like to say, "Hot girls, cool guys").

For 10 years, Wyneken has studied hatchlings from beaches around Florida at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton; the sex of a sea turtle can't be determined by external signs until the animal is 20 to 25 years old, so Wyneken uses a laparoscope to identify the sex of her turtles.

"We realized we had to ask the question: Are we making enough girls and boys to recover the species," Wyneken said. "We look at samples from a bunch of nests each season, and we've found that the sex ratio varies from year to year."

Florida is important to the loggerhead population because 90 percent of the loggerhead nests in the U.S. are laid on Florida beaches.

"The normal situation is that there's a strong female bias in Florida turtles," Wyneken said. "The nice thing is that Florida is putting out 4.6 (million) to 6 million hatchlings a year, so if only 12 percent are males, that's still a lot of boys. If we get four, five, six, seven, eight years of all girls, then we start paying attention."

Flippers flailing as Webb held Sassy over the water Tuesday, the turtle didn't seem to care about the science.

She just wanted to get into the water - she'll still be providing science, though, because she's carrying external tags and a passive integrated transponder tag, which is like a pet microchip.

Conservancy naturalist and aquarist Whitney Swain spent two years taking care of Sassy.

"It's rewarding," she said. "We've seen her grow and mature, and now she's going to survive on her own. It's sad to release her, but it's in her best interest. This is her habitat. You can't beat it."

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