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The Flatback Sea Turtle

The Flatback Sea Turtle

June 24, 2018

The Flatback Sea Turtle

Scientific Name: Natator Depressus

Appearance And Physical Features

The Flatback Sea Turtle has a set of scales in front of the eyes that make it look somewhat different from many turtles.

These turtles have a bony shell without ridges and large overlapping scales.

They get their names by the lower slope of the shell that makes them look flatter than other sea turtles.

They also have thinner carapaces than most sea turtles so their shells can break if under much pressure.

Leatherback Sea Turtle Picture

An Adult Female Flatback Sea Turtle Nesting - Photo by Lyndie Malan

They are vulnerable turtles compared to others.

Their colors can range from yellowish-green to olive green to gray. They have a creamy-colored underside.

They aren’t extremely large for sea turtles and usually weight less than 200 lbs. as adults.

Habitat And Diet

Habitat

Muddy waters along the shores and bay are favored by these turtles.

They also like coastal coral reefs and grassy shallow waters.

They nest in northern Australia and they stay right near small offshore islands instead of migrating. This makes them different from many other sea turtles.

They rarely leave shallow water for the entire lives. Even the juveniles don’t move out to sea like many turtles, but they seek out adult populations sooner after they are born. 

Diet

Flatback sea turtles eat sea cucumbers, jellyfish, squid, shrimp, mollusks, soft coral and some marine plant life such as seaweed. These gentle turtles do their best to adapt to their options.

Predators

Since Flatback Sea Turtles spend a lot of time in shallow water and they nest several times per year, they are vulnerable to a number of predators.

Mammals that live anywhere near the breeding grounds and habitats have been known to attack and eat the eggs and the adult turtles.

Dogs, wild pigs, foxes and other animals can break the thin shells of the Flatbacks.

Since the Flatback Sea Turtles do not usually go far from their homes, they aren’t skilled at avoiding newer predators like feral dog populations.

Flatback Sea Turtle Hatchling Image

A Flatback Sea Turtle Hatchling - Photo By Purpleturtle57

Breeding And Reproduction

The Flatback Sea turtle differs from other sea turtles in several ways and their unique reproduction is another.

They move to the shore to nest like other turtles, but they will lay eggs four times in one breeding season.

The season runs from around October to February in the north part of Queensland. In more temperature climates the season can last year round.

They only lay around 50 eggs at a time and the eggs incubate quickly. The eggs are larger than most sea turtle eggs and the emerging hatchling are also large. 

 

Ecology

These turtles have a very limited range and their impact on surrounding life is also limited. This also helps protect them from the threats that impact turtles who move further out.

The Flatback Sea Turtles stay in the ecological environs of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Threats

Like all other sea turtles, the biggest threats these turtles ever face comes from humans. People harvest the eggs for food and trade.

Beaches are used by people for recreation and housing which destroys the nesting area of the Flatback Sea Turtles.

Oil spills and pollution are big problems for these turtles as they come into contact with petroleum, plastic and other trash that can kill them.

They also easily become tangled in garbage and fishing gear.

Since these turtles also have thinner shells, when they do come into contact with dangerous items they can be injured or killed by fractured carapaces. 

photo of Gillnets threats to the flatback sea turtle

Gillnets, one of may threats to sea turtles - Photo by Scott Covington/USFWS.

Fibropapillomatosis

Flatbacks are also affected by another unique issue. A mysterious and debilitating disease affects a variety of sea turtles but is found in higher numbers in the Flatback Sea Turtles. This disease is called Fibropapillomatosis or FP. It is currently unknown exactly how they get it or why it affects this species of turtle to such an extreme. 

Fibropapillomatosis causes the turtles to grow external tumors that are not cancerous but grow large over time.

The tumors can hamper the turtle’s ability to swim, eat and breed, so it is a major problem for the Flatbacks.

The tumors can also cause Flatbacks to move slowly on land, so it increases the chances a predator will catch them. 

A great deal is unknown about this disease but what we do know is that it affects every part of the turtle’s life once it is contracted.

Study Of Flatback Sea Turtles

Much of the study on these turtles focuses on the Fibropapillomatosis disease. While FP lesions are found on other sea turtles except for Leatherbacks, the frequency is so much higher in Flatback Sea Turtles that marine biologists have found this population of value to study. Between the late 1990’s and the mid-2000’s, around 20% of dead or very ill turtles in Florida were found with the tumors. These included close relatives of the Flatback Sea Turtles who are losing ground to the disease. 

The Future Of Flatback Sea Turtles

Flatback Sea Turtles are listed as vulnerable under the Australian Environmental Protection Act. Their vulnerability to diseases like Fibropapillomatosis is a big problem. In addition, the thin shells make these turtles more prone to predator attacks and more likely to die when caught in fishing gear. At this time their future is an unknown, but if more information isn’t found about these turtles, they will gradually become endangered and possibly even extinct. 

What is most needed is students who are interested in these turtles and funds to study them.

They stay isolated during their lifetimes as well, so they must be sought out so that we can protect them.

With plans in place and continued government funding and donations, it is hoped that eventually, the Flatback Sea Turtles will have a serious future among sea turtles. Otherwise, they will gradually die out, particularly if the incidence of Fibropapillomatosis increases and kills off more breeding females in large numbers.

Our Mission

Our mission is to spread a message, with the help of ambassadors who believe these turtles deserve a better life. We came up with a cool way of doing this by creating t-shirts with cute sea turtle designs on the back.

Become part of the ripple, by clicking this link to shop from our collection of cute Sandy Ripple apparel.

A portion of the proceeds is given to sea turtle groups and conservations, in effort to help save and protect the turtles. 



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