Sea Turtles at Masonboro Island Reserve 2023

Author: Jillian Daly, NC Coastal Reserve Communications Specialist

Each nesting season, from May 1 to October 31, N.C. Coastal Reserve and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission staff monitor the nine miles of Masonboro Island Reserve’s beach for sea turtle nests. During the 2023 season, the reserve documented 46 nests and 32 false crawls. A false crawl is when a sea turtle comes ashore to lay eggs but returns to the water without depositing them due to various reasons including visual or noise disturbance or less-than-ideal nesting conditions. These crawls look similar to a nesting crawl. One nest was lost entirely to a king tide event.

Of the 46 nests documented, all of the nests and false crawls were made by loggerhead sea turtles. This is typical, as loggerheads are the primary nesters in North Carolina. The species of turtle can be identified by the track pattern they leave in the sand. Loggerhead tracks will alternate flippers, similar to the butterfly stroke, to pull themselves up the beach, whereas green sea turtles will move their front flippers in unison leaving flipper marks that are in line with each other.  

2019 had the most nests on the island since data collection began. The graph below compares the data for each year. 

The reserve participates in the Northern Recovery Unity Loggerhead DNA Project run by the University of Georgia. From each nest, one egg is sent to a lab to extract the DNA and identify the mother of that nest. The results are logged

 in a database, where researchers and partners can discover where and how often an individual mother nests in the region. This season, all sea turtles documented nesting on Masonboro Island were previously entered in the database, except one. This individual is new to the database, which means she has likely not nested in the sample area since at least 2011, when sampling began. Her tracks in the sand were relatively small, she dug very shallow egg chambers, and created many body pits in the attempt to nest. She successfully nested five times this summer on Masonboro Island Reserve!  

“Based on her nesting characteristics and emerging in the database for the first time, we think she could be a new mother that has started to reproduce and contribute to the population,” Masonboro Island Reserve site manager, Elizabeth Pinnix, said, “Practice makes perfect, right? Also, keep in mind reproductive age is around 30 years old!”

This conservation work for protected sea turtles at Masonboro Island is authorized by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (ES Permit 23ST21)

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