Scientists shocked to find rare hawksbill turtle in Indian River Lagoon

PHOTO BY ERIN SENEY

Scientists are not fond of talking in superlatives, but University of Central Florida sea turtle researcher Dr. Erin Seney says her recent encounter with an adult hawksbill sea turtle in the Indian River Lagoon south of Sebastian Inlet was “mind-bogglingly rare.”

“We were shocked. They are rare globally and particularly rare this far north,” Seney said of the critically-endangered species. “Even more rare than a four-leaf clover. To see something that beautiful and unusual was really exciting.”

Seney, an assistant research scientist with Dr. Kate Mansfield’s UCF Marine Turtle Research Group, explained that while hawksbills travel Florida’s coastal ocean waters, they hardly ever appear in the brackish Indian River Lagoon and they rarely nest on beaches north of the Keys. 

In UCF’s 37 years of monitoring, Seney said, this was only the second hawksbill ever found in the lagoon.

The once-in-a-blue-moon encounter happened as Seney and some graduate students and interns were on their usual twice-monthly research trip to the lagoon near the inlet. For years, they’ve been setting a large mesh net in the same general area in order to catch sea turtles for population and health studies.  Mostly they catch juvenile green and loggerhead turtles.

But on this day, they caught the 2 ½-foot long hawksbill – most likely an adult female – which they determined to be in perfect health.

They checked to see if it had any other researchers’ tag attached. When they saw it didn’t, they fastened two metal tags to its flippers, implanted an internal microchip tag and took some blood and tissue samples, before releasing the animal. 

What in the world was it doing there?

“That’s a really good question,” Seney said.  “It could have wandered into the lagoon looking for something to eat.”

She said the animals’ main diet consists of sponges, algae and some invertebrates.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, only 54 hawksbill nests have been documented in the Sunshine State since 1979, with six in the Keys and one in Palm Beach County in the past five years.

Dr. Larry Wood, director of the Jupiter-based Florida Hawksbill Project at the Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, considers Seney’s discovery a true “anomaly”.

“Weird, but kinda cool,” Wood said. “Turtles have their twist. You think you have them figured out, but then they do a weird thing.  They are very adaptive. They can exploit different habitats.”

Photos by Erin Seney and Gustavo Stahelin

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