Competition for the Title of “Old Faithful”

Summer 2001 Issue Articles:

* I Regret to Inform You, But a Cat Got Your Turtle
* Competition for the Title of “Old Faithful”

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Competition for the Title of “Old Faithful”

By Sebastian Troëng

When CCC Research Assistant Daveka Boodram from Trindidad and Tobago on the night of 12 August 2001 encountered a green turtle carrying tag No. 80968 on the Tortuguero beach, little did she realize this female turtle was very special. The following morning CCC Field Coordinator Catalina Reyes entered the previous night’s data into the computer and checked on the history of turtles that were seen. Imagine her surprise when she found that the turtle carrying tag No. 80968 was originally tagged in Tortuguero with tag No. 17139 on the night of 28 July 1978! Daveka’s sighting was the 13th observation of that green turtle spanning an impressive 23 years between the most recent sighting and the date of first tagging.

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation has been monitoring the Atlantic green sea turtle nesting population at Tortuguero, Costa Rica for over 40 years. Photo by Laurie M. Penland

In 1983, Dr. Archie Carr published an article about the feats of Tortuguero green turtle No.3438 (Animal Kingdom 85:49-50), a turtle he named Old Faithful. Turtle No. 3438 got its honorary name from its remarkable tagging history at Tortuguero where it was observed on 26 occasions during seven nesting seasons in the 17 years between 1965 and 1982. After the 2001 Green Turtle Program, turtle No. 3438 may have to give up its Old Faithful nickname to green turtle No. 17139.

No. 17139 is now carrying her sixth and seventh tags after having lost tags and having them replaced several times over the years (see Table 1). The female was first seen nesting at Tortuguero during the 1978 nesting season (once) and has since been observed by CCC taggers during the 1982 (twice), 1986 (three times), 1989 (twice), 1992 (twice), 1995 (once), 1998 (once) and 2001 (once) nesting seasons.

Turtle No. 17139 is important not only as an oddity but her history emphasizes many aspects of sea turtle biology and research. For example, it shows that turtles are long-lived animals. Green turtles become sexually mature around 25-50 years of age and adding to that 23 years of intermittent nesting we are talking about a turtle 48-73 years of age, minimum.

Turtle No. 17139 is also a good example of how faithful Tortuguero green turtles are to their nesting sites. All the sightings of No. 17139 have been along a three and one quarter mile stretch of the 18 mile Tortuguero beach and 12 of the 13 sightings have occurred along only two miles of beach.

Nesting females are tagged with metal tags that let researchers identify individual turtles. Old Faithful has had many different tags that have allowed Caribbean Conservation Corporation researchers to follow her nesting cycles for over a quarter of a century. Photo by Laurie M. Penland

Green turtle No. 17139 was of only average size, suggesting that female green turtles probably grow little once they have reached sexual maturity. Once they become reproductively active all their energy may go towards building up reserves to migrate, to mate and to lay eggs.

Old Faithful No. 17139 has been sighted during eight nesting seasons which means that the female must have migrated between Tortuguero and her feeding grounds at least eight times. She has dodged turtle fishermen, shrimp trawls, boat propellers, lobster nets and poachers along those migrations and during her time near the nesting beach. Turtle No. 17139 must either be a very lucky turtle or she lives in a place where turtle fishermen and shrimp trawls are scarce.

Turtle No. 17139 may also reflect the success of sea turtle conservation in the Caribbean in recent decades. It is possible that female No. 17139 has survived all her migrations because improved protection given to turtles through international conventions and conservation programs.

The many encounters with No. 17139 also highlight the importance of long-term projects such as the Tortuguero turtle programs. The only reason we know about No. 17139’s impressive life history is because CCC has had turtle taggers patrolling the beach every year since 1955. Without the hundreds of volunteers and research assistants walking the beach over the years, we would never have been able to record turtle No.17139 as many times as we have. Hopefully CCC’s continued commitment to the Tortuguero turtle programs will result in some of the newly tagged green turtle females from this year being seen again in 23 years time.

The database records for turtle No. 17139 show that she was checked for papillomas in 1995 but found to have none. Optimist that I am I think turtle No. 17139 will remain healthy and will stay away from those trying to catch her. I hope that in three or four years time, maybe after the 2004 or 2005 green turtle nesting season, I will be able to report on the triumphant return to Tortuguero of our new Old Faithful No. 17139, for a record nine nesting seasons spanning over 26 or 27 years!