Scientific Name: Lepidochelys kempii
Category: Sea Turtles
Kemp's Ridley sea turtles are sea turtles that live in the warm Atlantic waters near Florida, and in the Gulf of Mexico. They are the smallest of the sea turtles and as adults weigh only 35-45 kg (100 lbs) and are less than 1m (less than 1 yard) long. Kemp's Ridley sea turtles can live to be 50 years old and they change color as they grow. As hatchlings, they are dark gray in color, but as adults their very round shells called carapaces, lighten to a gray-green. The underside of their shell is yellow-green. The heads are triangular in shape and the males have longer tails than the females. The females can range as far north in the Atlantic Ocean as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to feed, but males never range far from the nesting grounds, because their feeding grounds are in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some scientists think the breeding age of the turtle is 7-15 years, others think they do not breed until they are at least 35 years old. The turtles mate every other year between the months of April and August and nest only along a small section of a beach in the states of Tamaulipas, Mexico and in Florida. They usually return to breed on the same beach on which they were hatched. The turtles mate in the ocean and the females then crawl up the beach to find a spot to lay their eggs. The females lay the eggs during the day three times a season; the only sea turtle known to do this. The nest holds about 110 eggs which have a leathery white shell that are about the size of a ping pong ball. The sex of the turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. If the temperature is colder than 29.50 °C (850 °F), the turtles that hatch will be mostly male. In view of the rising temperatures in our warming climate, there is a significant chance that future generations will be mostly female.
When the turtles break out of their shells, they use a temporary tooth called a caruncle to break the shell. The hatchlings move across the beach to the ocean during nighttime and are sent on their way by the currents of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists think that part of their decrease in population is due to the human overpopulation near nesting areas. The turtles are particularly sensitive to light and scientists ask people living in the nesting areas in Mexico and southern Florida to keep their lights off in the evenings during the times the hatchlings are moving to the ocean. They will not crawl to the ocean if it is too light outside.
The Kemp's have a parrot-like beak and powerful jaws that are used to break the shells of crabs, their favorite food. They eat many kinds of clams, mussels, shrimp, sea urchins, and jellyfish, and thus play an important role in many marine ecosystems. They feed along the bottom of the continental shelf, in bays, lagoons, and salt marshes and are called benthic feeders.
Kemp's Ridley sea turtles are the most endangered of the sea turtles. In the 1940s there were more than 100,000, but by the 1980s the numbers were down to a few hundred nesting females. Much of the decrease in population can be attributed to the over-harvesting of eggs during the twentieth century, as the eggs were considered a delicacy. The turtles are caught in the bycatch of fishing boats. A special invention called the Turtle Excluder Device (TED), was designed to allow small animals, like shrimp, to pass into the catch net, but keeps out larger animals like the Kemp's turtles. Recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, such as Katrina and Ike, have also done damage to the turtle population by disrupting their nesting beaches and feeding habitats. As with many marine animals, they occasionally eat plastic and other ocean debris. They have even been known to eat aluminum foil! Projects are in place now to relocate the nests and eggs to safe 'corrals' on Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, to keep the eggs and young safe from predators and human poaching.
Scientists developed very special tagging procedures to keep track of the turtles for decades. Instead of gluing a tag to the turtle that could fall off, researchers designed a natural tagging system made from the turtle's own shell. A small portion of the yellow shell from their underbelly was cut out and implanted into a hole that had been drilled in the top of the shell. A specific color and location code was designed for locating the yellow piece on the top shell. These codes correspond to the year the turtles were born and provide a life-long natural tag for monitoring as the yellow pieces grow into the top shell. The Kemp's Ridley turtles are named after Richard Kemp who first sent a specimen to Harvard University in 1906. No one is sure why they are called "Ridley," but maybe it is because they resembled the Olive Ridley Turtle.
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