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Ocean-finding in marine turtles: the importance of low horizon elevation as an orientation cue

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Sea finding behaviour in hatchling sea turtles is widely believed to be guided by orientation towards the brightest horizon and away from high silhouettes. We propose that the horizon profile at the lowest angle of elevation is a more important cue for ocean finding than light intensity. Examples of hatchling orientation occurring at natural nest sites, at preselected beach release sites, and within a walled wooden arena under various conditions in the field, are presented. We conclude that hatchlings orient as follows: (1) Hatchlings move towards the horizon line at the lowest angle of elevation; (2) Hatchlings move away from high silhouettes, in a direction that remains close to the horizon line at the lowest angle of elevation; (3) Should a conflict exist regarding the direction of lowest horizon elevation, hatchlings move towards the brightest lowest horizon. This refinement to current theory explains numerous instances of natural non-ocean-finding behaviour in marine turtles, which occur both by day and by night, and in the absence of artificial lighting. We propose that the disruption caused to hatchling orientation by artificial lighting close to nesting beaches occurs because bright lights mask the horizon line as a cue by making it impossible to discern, causing the hatchlings to move towards the only visible “horizon” — the artificial lights. Consequently, we recommend that managers of sea turtle rookeries where turtles have an ocean-finding problem should manipulate the beach profile to ensure the direction of the ocean matches the lowest angle of elevation, in combination with light reduction strategies — as the most effective means of preventing disrupted orientation.

Affiliations: 1: aKelvin Grove College of Teacher Education, Brisbane, QLD, Australia; 2: bSchool of Earth and Environmental Sciences, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia


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