Sea turtles are a “keystone species”. This means that they are an essential part of the environment and they also influence the species around them. If a keystone species is endangered or removed from a habitat, it can disrupt the natural order and impact the wildlife and other fauna in a variety of ways.
Sea turtles are influential both in and out of the water. Nestle sea turtles also help the beach by depositing their egg in the sand. The unhatched eggs and eggshells the nestling mother leaves behind provide vital nutrients that dune vegetables such as beach grasses need to survive. These nutrients help to prevent coastal erosion by stabilizing the dunes.
Photo by Zig Leszczynski.
Sea turtles also serve as food for other animals in different stages of their life. As hatchlings, they are prey to crabs, birds, fish, and land mammals. Adults sea turtles are also prey to the apex predators of the ocean like orcas and sharks. On some beaches like the Costa Rican beach, adult female sea turtles are prey for jaguars prowling nesting beaches at night. This makes sea turtles an integral part of the food pyramid both on land and in the sea.
Although most sea turtle species have a preference for jellyfish, the different species feed on different things. The primary diet of a leatherback sea turtle is a jellyfish. They are vital in keeping the jellyfish population in check. If all the leatherbacks were to disappear, it would cause a population explosion among the jellyfish. And since jellyfish prey on larval fish, it means there would be no larval fish and thus no fish in the sea. If we lost the leatherbacks, we could lose the fishes in the sea. It’s all about balance.
Adult green sea turtles have a diet that consists primarily of seagrass. They act as an aquatic lawnmower helping to keep the seagrass beds at a healthy level. Seagrass beds (often found in shallow marine waters) provide food, habitat, and a secure nursery area for a lot of fish species. It gives them a place to shelter from predators until they are much larger. Healthy seagrass beds also help to stabilize the ocean bottom thus helping to decrease erosion from storms and wave action.
Sea turtles also provide a habit for all kinds of aquatic hitchhikers such as remoras, barnacles, diatoms, algae, and other small crustaceans. Because of the long migration routes that sea turtles take, they act as a transport for these species. They also act as a form of protective umbrella for fishes that use them as shelter from their predators. Why they surface to rest or breathe, sea turtles also act as a resting spot for seabirds to perch on.
Sea turtles also play an essential cultural role for several coastal communities around the world. They are revered by many indigenous cultures and some even consider them ancestors. They also serve as an important source of income for coastal residents via turtle-watching ecotourism. Research shows that sea turtle ecotourism is capable of generating three times the income of what you’ll get if you sell the sea turtle parts (meats, eggs, and shell). This makes worth more alive than dead.
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