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Turtles in race to beat extinction

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(CNN) -- The tortoise famously beat the hare, but now conservationists are turning to racing turtles in a bid to raise awareness and learn more about the plight of one of the planet's oldest species.

Weighing more than 700 kilograms and reaching more than 1.7 meters in length, the leatherback turtle is the world's largest marine reptile.

Having outlived the dinosaurs -- dating back some 110 million years -- the turtles are also among the most enduring creatures on earth and, biologists say, an important gauge of the health of the marine ecosystem.

Yet, incredibly, conservationists warn these ancient animals could be within a decade of extinction. In 1980 the worldwide leatherback population was estimated at around 115,000. Now it is feared that figure could be as low as 25,000.

In the Pacific Ocean alone around 95 percent of leatherbacks have vanished in the past 20 years due to human activity, according to the environmental group Conservation International.

One of the deadliest threats to their survival is longline fishing, which claims around 40,000 sea turtles annually. But other contributing factors to their include coastal development, egg poaching, ocean pollution and global warming.

Even seemingly innocuous human actions can have devastating repercussions for the marine ecosystem. For instance, a plastic bag discarded in the sea could be mistaken by a turtle for a jellyfish, their main source of food.

James Spotila, president of The Leatherback Trust, said, "It's time for people to rally around these ancient creatures and to understand that the actions we take -- as individuals, as governments, as businesspeople -- can have either a negative or positive effect on the ocean."

In a novel initiative that may help to secure the creatures' future, 11 turtles are currently being satellite tracked on their 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) annual migration from the beaches of Central America to their traditional feeding areas around the Galapagos Islands off the coast of the South America.

The turtles began their journey at the start of April from Costa Rica's Playa Grande in the Las Baulas Marine Park. Once a nesting ground for thousands of female turtles, just 58 arrived this year, down from 124 in 2006, Conservation International said.

The turtles' progress can be followed online at www.greatturtlerace.comexternal link, in what one blogger describes as "the biggest race in turtle history."

Already more than halfway through their journey, the race is building to an exciting climax on April 29 with Stephanie Colburtle -- named in honor of the comedian Stephen Colbert and backed by students at the Playa Grande Research Station -- currently holding a 27-mile advantage over her nearest rival, Billie.

In reality though, the turtle race is about groundbreaking scientific research. Each time the leatherbacks surface to breathe, the transmitters attached to their shells send data about their location, water temperature and water depth via satellite, allowing marine biologists to track their progress with GPS precision.

"It's fascinating to consider that we are able to bring together these prehistoric animals with such cutting edge science. With every move the turtles make, the satellite tags collect information that would be extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive for humans to gather," said Stanford University researcher and turtle-tagger George Shillinger.

"The data provides a nearly real-time 'turtle's-eye view' of animal behavior in relation to environmental change."

And the prize for the winner? Firstly, survival. One study in 2004 estimated leatherback turtles had only a 50 percent chance of avoiding being accidentally snared by a deep sea fishing line each year. And, secondly -- as for millions of years -- the chance to feast undisturbed on as many jellyfish as a turtle can eat.

Leatherback turtles have populated the earth's oceans for around 110 million years.


Should areas of ocean populated by endangered species be designated as protected environments?
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