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Keywords:

  • conservation genetics;
  • migratory behaviour;
  • marine turtles;
  • nesting beaches;
  • mitochondrial DNA;
  • population structure

Abstract

Information on the reproductive behaviour and population structure of female hawksbill turtles, Eretmochelys imbricata, is necessary to define conservation priorities for this highly endangered species. Two hypotheses to explain female nest site choice, natal homing and social facilitation, were tested by analysing mtDNA control region sequences of 103 individuals from seven nesting colonies in the Caribbean and western Atlantic. Under the social facilitation model, newly mature females follow older females to a nesting location, and subsequently use this site for future nesting. This model generates an expectation that female lineages will be homogenized among regional nesting colonies. Contrary to expectations of the social facilitation model, mtDNA lineages were highly structured among western Atlantic nesting colonies. These analyses identified at least 6 female breeding stocks in the Caribbean and western Atlantic and support a natal homing model for recruitment of breeding females. Reproductive populations are effectively isolated over ecological time scales, and recovery plans for this species should include protection at the level of individual nesting colonies.