Chelonia mydas

Green turtle

Chelonia mydas
(Linnaeus, 1758)

Green turtle swimming in the coastal waters of the Poor Knights Islands. © Lorna Doogan.
Image attribution
Green turtle swimming in the coastal waters of the Poor Knights Islands. © Lorna Doogan.
Herpetofaunal category
Marine Reptiles
Species complex
Conservation Status
Non-resident Native - Migrant (IUCN - Endangered)
Common names
Green turtle

Subspecies: Pacific black sea turtle (C. mydas. ssp. agassizi)
                      West Pacific green sea turtle (C. mydas. ssp. japonica)
                      Atlantic green sea turtle (C. mydas. Ssp. mydas)
 

Length: up to 1.5 metres

Weight: 110-200kg (up to 300 kg)

Description

A beautiful large marine turtle, exhibiting a brown or green shell, often highlighted with a scattering of yellow and green markings. New Zealand’s green turtle population is made up primarily of juvenile and subadult animals belonging to the West Pacific population, although some individuals from Northland have been identified as the Black sea turtles of the Eastern Pacific.
 

Identification

Distinguished from other marine turtles by its large oval-shaped carapace (shell) which ranges in colour from olive to dark brown, and is arranged with 5 vertebral scutes (shields) running down the centre of its carapace, and 4 pairs of costal scutes (shields) arranged on either side.
 

Distribution

New Zealand is the southernmost distribution of this species in the western Pacific Ocean.
A resident sub-adult population occurs around Raoul Island in the Kermadec Archipelago.
Juveniles are fairly regularly sighted in the coastal waters of Northland, particularly around Rangaunu Harbour and the Poor Knights Islands, with records becoming sparse in the waters south of the Bay of Plenty. Few records from the South Island.
 

Diet

Adults are primarily herbivorous with the majority of their diet consisting of seagrasses, algae, and seaweed. They are also known to opportunistically prey on jellyfish, crustaceans and starfish. Prior to moving into the coastal waters, which they inhabit when mature, young green turtles (< 5 years) are almost exclusively carnivorous, feeding on jellyfish, salps, and small animals in the pelagic zone.
 

Ecology and Habitat

Green sea turtles are a marine species primarily associated with coastal habitats including seagrass meadows, saltmarshes, and reef systems. 
They play a significant role in maintaining the health of seagrass beds through grazing, and, in reef systems, take part in symbiotic cleaning relationships with several fish species.
The eggs and hatchlings of marine turtles are important seasonal prey for many coastal animals and provide nutrient enrichment for coastal plant species. In addition to this, mature animals are also important prey species for several apex predators including the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier).
 

Life Expectancy

80-100 years
 

Social Structure

Green turtles are solitary animals but are known to occur in large aggregations around natal colonies during the breeding/nesting season.
Interactions outside these periods are less common but are typically clustered around key sites such as the cleaning stations present within reef systems. 
 

Breeding Biology

Green turtles do not breed or nest in New Zealand.
Being long-lived animals, they typically take between 20-50 years to reach sexual maturity. Once mature, females can breed every 3-4 years (typically in late spring to early summer), producing around 80-200 eggs which are laid at mass nesting sites.
The sex of each individual is determined by temperature, with higher temperatures resulting in females, and cooler temperatures for males. Eggs hatch approximately two months after laying.


Disease and threats

Green turtles are susceptible to several diseases common in reptile species. However, the most concerning, and threatening of these is fibropapillomatosis; a disease only present in marine turtles. This disease is diagnosed by the formation of benign external tumours which inhibit the animal’s movement, eventually resulting in death. It is suspected that turtle leeches (Ozobranchus spp.) may be one of the major vectors. 

As with other marine turtle species, human-related threats including coastal developments, harvesting of nests, chemical and plastic pollution, and bycatch by fisheries are all factors that have led to their widespread decline.
The ingestion of plastics is considered to be the most common cause of stranding in New Zealand.
 

References

 

Aguirre, A. A., Spraker, T. R., Balazs, G. H., & Zimmerman, B. (1998). Spirorchidiasis and fibropapillomatosis in green turtles from the Hawaiian Islands. Journal of Wildlife Diseases34(1), 91-98.Thomson, J. A., Gulick, A., & Heithaus, M. R. (2015). Intraspecific behavioural dynamics in a green turtle Chelonia mydas foraging aggregation. Marine Ecology Progress Series532, 243-256.

Chen, T. H., & Cheng, I. J. (1995). Breeding biology of the green turtle, Chelonia mydas,(Reptilia: Cheloniidae) on Wan-an Island, Peng-Hu Archipelago, Taiwan. I. nesting ecology. Marine Biology124(1), 9-15.

Heithaus, M. R., Alcoverro, T., Arthur, R., Burkholder, D. A., Coates, K. A., Christianen, M. J., ... & Fourqurean, J. W. (2014). Seagrasses in the age of sea turtle conservation and shark overfishing. Frontiers in Marine Science1, 28.

Reich, K. J., Bjorndal, K. A., & Bolten, A. B. (2007). The ‘lost years’ of green turtles: using stable isotopes to study cryptic lifestages. Biology letters3(6), 712-714.

van Winkel, D., Baling, M., Hitchmough, R. 2018. Reptiles and amphibians of New Zealand – a field guide. Auckland university press, Auckland New Zealand.