Use of particle tracking to determine optimal release dates and locations for rehabilitated neonate sea turtles
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Sea turtles found stranded on beaches are often rehabilitated before being released back into the wild. The location and date of release is largely selected on an informal basis, which may not maximize the chance of survival. As oceanic conditions have a large influence on the movements of neonate sea turtles, this study aimed to identify the best locations and months to release rehabilitated sea turtles that would assist in their transport by ocean currents to the habitat and thermal conditions required for their survival. A particle tracking model, forced by ocean surface velocity fields, was used to simulate the dispersal pathways of millions of passively drifting particles released from different locations in Western Australia. The particles represented rehabilitated, neonate turtles requiring oceanic habitats [green (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and loggerheads (Caretta caretta)] and flatback turtles (Natator depressus) which require neritic habitats. The results clearly identified regions and months where ocean currents were more favorable for transport to suitable habitats. Tantabiddi, near Exmouth on the north-west coast, was consistently the best location for release for the oceanic species, with dominant offshore-directed currents and a very narrow continental shelf reducing the time taken for particles to be transported into deep water. In contrast, release locations with more enclosed geography, wide continental shelves, and/or proximity to cooler ocean temperatures were less successful. Our results produced a decision support system for the release of neonate marine turtles in Western Australia and our particle tracking approach has global transferability.
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