Sea Turtles: An Overview

During high school, I went to the Florida Keys and visited The Turtle Hospital. There, I met the turtle with a syndrome named after it, Bubble Butt, and donated supplies to help them continue their mission. Florida’s coastline serves as nesting ground for 5 of the only 7 species of sea turtles in the world! Though sea turtles are not in our backyard here in Ithaca, NY, they are of concern when we venture to warmer weather during the brutal Northeast winters, as well as spring and summer breaks.

These are the seven species of sea turtles:

  • Green (Chelonia mydas): endangered
    • Herbivore: sea grass and algae (also sponges and jellyfish)
    • Worldwide in tropical seas
    • Diet turns their fat green
  • Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii): critically endangered, rarest sea turtle
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, jellyfish, vegetation
    • Primarily Gulf of Mexico, restricted to North America
    • Named after Richard Kemp; “arribada” nesting behavior all together in middle of day
  • Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea): vulnerable
    • Gelatinivore: jellyfish, cnidarians, tunicates
    • Worldwide in deeper oceans
    • Has a unique leathery shell with longitudinal ridges along its carapace (upper shell), which allows for deep diving
  • Loggerhead (Caretta caretta): threatened
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, conch, algae, sea grass
    • Worldwide in tropical and subtropical seas
    • Strongest jaw muscles
  • Hawksbilll (Eretmochelys imbricata): critically endangered
    • Omnivore: sponges, small invertebrates
    • Worldwide tropical seas near coral reefs
    • Harvested for “tortoise-shell” pattern in jewelry and decorations; bird-like beak
  • Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea): vulnerable
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, fish, jellyfish, vegetation, sponges
    • Pacific and lower Atlantic oceans
    • Olive green shell; greatest number of scutes (shell scales)
  • Flatback (Natator depressus): vulnerable
    • Omnivore: sea cucumbers, sea pens, soft corals, jellyfish, echinoderms, sea grass
    • Around Australia
    • Named for flatness of shell

Nesting habits and artificial light

A problem that has arisen with increasing development along beaches is the inability of mother sea turtles to find good nesting spots and hatchling sea turtles to orient themselves to the ocean via the reflection of the moon after hatching. Due to coastline lighting, mother sea turtles end up laying their eggs in less than ideal locations (including in the ocean!), and hatchlings are predated, or become dehydrated and die in their quest for the sea.

Common injuries and illness

Most of the injuries and illnesses suffered by sea turtles are due to human intervention in their habitat.

  • Boat hits: Like manatees, turtles can get hit by boat propellers in shallow and deep water when they come up for air.
    • Boat propellers can cut through turtle shell, and this can result in the turtle becoming more buoyant. This disorder is referred to as Bubble Butt Syndrome after one of The Turtle Hospital’s turtles suffering from such incident. Those with the condition cannot submerge without weights, but attached weights can fall off so the turtles become permanently captive.
  • Impactions: Plastic bags look like jellyfish, and turtles are opportunistic feeders like goats.
    • Plastic bags and other trash and pollutants cannot be digested and block the digestive track of sea turtles causing what is called an impaction. In the wild, they will eventually die of starvation due to this issue. Impacted turtles are treated with Metamucil, fiber, and vegetable oil to ease blockage, much like horses with similar conditions.
  • Entanglement: fishing line can wrap around appendages and cut off circulation, but can also have hooks attached
    • As turtles swim, they rotate their flippers in a circular fashion, so a fishing line can encircle their appendages and prevent blood flow, causing turtles to lose function and possibly limbs and drown as they are not able to swim to the surface to breathe.
    • Turtles can ingest fish hooks which can damage their digestive tracts. The hook can either be treated similar to an impaction, allowed to rust out, or removed surgically.
  • Cold stunning: just like when you get in the pool for the first time in the spring, but with more severe effects
    • When the water temperature dips below 10 degrees Celsius (or 50 degrees Fahrenheit), turtles can become cold stunned; they lose the ability to swim/dive and often float to the surface. Treatment involves slowly warming them in water at about 3 degrees Celsius per day up to 24 degrees Celsius.
  • Fibropapillomatosis: caused primarily by a herpesvirus
    • Fibropapillomatosis causes tumors to grow predominantly on the face and flippers, affecting their sight and ability to swim. Surgery is used to debulk these tumors, but there is no vaccine or cure. Some turtles become immune over a year in captivity, but tumors can recur and be internal, where they are not detectable.

How you can help!

These important measures protect and respect all animal life, not just sea turtles.

  • Follow signage that asks you to “stay off the beach” during turtle nesting and hatching season so as not to disturb these magnificent creatures.
  • Follow ordinances to modify light fixtures and turn off outside lights, especially during nights of the nesting season if you live on the coast.
  • Clean up after yourself; don’t leave trash on the beach or anywhere where it could reach the sea.
  • Follow signage to stop boat propellers when in shallow water and where anchoring is permissible.
  • If you fish, be sure to gather your fishing line and dispose of it properly as it takes hundreds of years to degrade. If you see loose fishing line, be a good citizen and dispose of it in appropriate receptacles.


Lauren Jacobs is a third year Cornell veterinary student and student wildlife technician from Poughquag, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Animal Science from Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2015, with minors in Biology and Music. Lauren is interested in mixed animal private practice and plans to continue to work with wildlife and enjoy music after graduation.

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