I Regret to Inform You, But a Cat Got Your Turtle

Summer 2001 Issue Articles:

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

Next Issue
Previous Issue

I Regret to Inform You, But a Cat Got Your Turtle

By Dr. Anne Meylan & Sebastian Troëng

I regret to inform you…. was how the email began that related the remarkable fate of one of our study animals. The message went on to say that a turtle bearing tag MM013 was eaten by a jaguar on the nesting beach at Tortuguero on June 16, 2001. A carcass with this tag was encountered by the Tortuguero National Park guards Jorge and Noldán, and the information reported to the CCC field station at Tortuguero. We had first captured this adult female green turtle in a net off the Zapatilla Cays, Panama, on June 22, 1990, as part of a study of the ecology and migrations of marine turtles of Bocas del Toro Province. With funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society, my husband Peter and I have been investigating the biology and migrations of the adult green turtles captured in Bocas during the reproductive season. Based on tag return data, genetic data, and satellite tracks, we know these are Tortuguero green turtles en route to the nesting beach, or mating in the nearshore waters of Bocas.

The tagging records revealed that this turtle had been seen at Tortuguero once before — about one month after we had tagged and released her in Panama in 1990. She had nested at Mile 6 1/8, where she would not normally have been observed, but there was a special project being conducted that year by the Center for Field Studies. Researchers watched her nest, recorded her tag number, and allowed her to return to the sea.

It is likely that she visited the nesting beach at Tortuguero other times during the 11-year interval between her last two sightings, but she would have been unlikely to be observed because that part of the 22-mile beach is rarely monitored at night. Green turtles typically exhibit a high degree of site fidelity to their previous nesting sites. The final detail in the email reporting the turtle’s demise was chilling, all the same – the guards had found her on Mile 6!

Jaguars have been documented as predators of nesting turtles at Tortuguero on numerous occasions, killing at least 31 green turtles, 2 hawksbills and one leatherback turtle in 2001 alone. There has been an increase in the number of marine turtles killed by jaguars at Tortuguero, with four documented kills in 1997 and 60 recorded in 2000. Most of the kills have been encountered far into the National Park, where night patrols are only occasionally conducted. Nevertheless, as soon as CCC realized that the Research Assistants were sharing the beach at night with a large predatory cat we contacted jaguar researcher for more information. To our great relief, they all informed us that jaguars in the wild have never been documented as attacking people.

The increase in jaguar predation in Tortuguero may have been caused by an increase in the jaguar population, a decrease in other prey species, a decrease in suitable habitat forcing more jaguars into the National Park or a female jaguar teaching her cubs to prey upon nesting turtles. CCC is currently looking for cooperators to study the area’s jaguars in order to determine if they are presenting a significant threat to the marine turtle populations.