Mitochondrial DNA research helps protect sea turtles

Sea turtles face a number of threats, including habitat loss, marine pollution, overfishing and climate change. However, one of the greatest threats to sea turtles, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, remains illegal exploitation for consumption and trade. The combination of these factors has led to the listing of sea turtles on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with some species and sub-populations listed as Critically Endangered. Protecting sea turtles is therefore key to the conservation of these species and the ecosystems they inhabit. And it is genetic research that has become increasingly important in sea turtle conservation in recent years.

Mitochondrial DNA contains genetic information that the mother passes on to her offspring (known as maternal inheritance). Sea turtles are migratory species, returning to the beach where they hatched as adults to mate and lay eggs. This philopatric behaviour has caused individual populations of sea turtles to diverge genetically over thousands of years. Knowledge of sea turtle genetics is therefore essential for distinguishing populations, defining management units for their protection, and identifying movement patterns. Genetic methods can also be used as a tool to combat illegal trade or to assess the impact of fishing, as turtles are often caught as bycatch in fishing nets.

The research, which focuses not only on the genetics of sea turtles, is carried out at the CZU from 2021 by Adéla Hemelíková, who is a doctoral student at the Department of Ecology of the Faculty of Environment. The research is conducted in Sumatra, Indonesia. The first part of the research consists of a questionnaire survey and focuses on identifying the socio-economic and cultural causes of sea turtle exploitation. The second part of the research focuses on mapping the genetic structure of Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Green (Chelonia mydas) turtle rookeries in Sumatra. Further, in July this year, Adéla, together with the Liberec Zoo and the Brno Zoo, successfully deployed GPS satellite tags on four green turtles in order to monitor their movements.

The results of the genetic research will contribute to ShellBank's global database, which aims to use genetic research to identify and trace the origin of illegally caught turtles and turtle products (e.g. tortoiseshell) or by-catch turtles.

The research has been supported by IGA FŽP (project number: 2022B0041). The project is also supported by Liberec Zoo, Rufford Foundation, SWOT, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation and is implemented in cooperation with Universitas Syiah Kuala (Banda Aceh, Indonesia), Liberec Zoo and the Asia-Pacific Marine Turtle Genetic Working Group.

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