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Keywords:

  • Environmental niche;
  • habitat model;
  • ocean management;
  • satellite tracking;
  • spatial ecology

Abstract

Aim  Although satellite tracking has yielded much information regarding the migrations and habitat use of threatened marine species, relatively little has been published about the environmental niche for loggerhead sea turtles Caretta caretta in north-west Atlantic waters.

Location  North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, USA.

Methods  We tracked 68 adult female turtles between 1998 and 2008, one of the largest sample sizes to date, for 372.2 ± 210.4 days (mean ± SD).

Results  We identified two strategies: (1) ‘seasonal’ migrations between summer and winter coastal areas (n = 47), although some turtles made oceanic excursions (n = 4) and (2) occupation of more southerly ‘year-round’ ranges (n = 18). Seasonal turtles occupied summer home ranges of 645.1 km2 (median, n = 42; using α-hulls) predominantly north of 35 ° latitude and winter home ranges of 339.0 km2 (n = 24) in a relatively small area on the narrow shelf off North Carolina. We tracked some of these turtles through successive summer (n = 8) and winter (n = 3) seasons, showing inter-annual home range repeatability to within 14.5 km of summer areas and 10.3 km of winter areas. For year-round turtles, home ranges were 1889.9 km2. Turtles should be tracked for at least 80 days to reliably estimate the home range size in seasonal habitats. The equivalent minimum duration for ‘year-round’ turtles is more complex to derive. We define an environmental envelope of the distribution of North American loggerhead turtles: warm waters (between 18.2 and 29.2 °C) on the coastal shelf (in depths of 3.0–89.0 m).

Main conclusions  Our findings show that adult female loggerhead turtles show predictable, repeatable home range behaviour and do not generally leave waters of the USA, nor the continental shelf (< 200m depth). These data offer insights for future marine management, particularly if they were combined with those from the other management units in the USA.