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Keywords:

  • complex population structure;
  • endangered species;
  • homing;
  • marine turtles;
  • multiple paternity;
  • sex-biased dispersal

Abstract

The seven species of sea turtles occupy a diversity of niches, and have a history tracing back over 100 million years, yet all share basic life-history features, including exceptional navigation skills and periodic migrations from feeding to breeding habitats. Here, we review the biogeographic, behavioural, and ecological factors that shape the distribution of genetic diversity in sea turtles. Natal homing, wherein turtles return to their region of origin for mating and nesting, has been demonstrated with mtDNA sequences. These maternally inherited markers show strong population structure among nesting colonies while nuclear loci reveal a contrasting pattern of male-mediated gene flow, a phenomenon termed ‘complex population structure’. Mixed-stock analyses indicate that multiple nesting colonies can contribute to feeding aggregates, such that exploitation of turtles in these habitats can reduce breeding populations across the region. The mtDNA data also demonstrate migrations across entire ocean basins, some of the longest movements of marine vertebrates. Multiple paternity occurs at reported rates of 0–100%, and can vary by as much as 9–100% within species. Hybridization in almost every combination among members of the Cheloniidae has been documented but the frequency and ultimate ramifications of hybridization are not clear. The global phylogeography of sea turtles reveals a gradient based on habitat preference and thermal regime. The cold-tolerant leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) shows no evolutionary partitions between Indo-Pacific and Atlantic populations, while the tropical green (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), and ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea vs. L. kempi) have ancient separations between oceans. Ridleys and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) also show more recent colonization between ocean basins, probably mediated by warm-water gyres that occasionally traverse the frigid upwelling zone in southern Africa. These rare events may be sufficient to prevent allopatric speciation under contemporary geographic and climatic conditions. Genetic studies have advanced our understanding of marine turtle biology and evolution, but significant gaps persist and provide challenges for the next generation of sea turtle geneticists.