The key to protecting critically endangered turtles could lie in their barnacles.

While some people think barnacles growing on turtles is bad for them, Griffith University researcher Ryan Pearson said they could actually help protect the turtles, and shift conservation to where it’s needed most.

“The International Union for Conservation of Nature has recently added sea turtle sub-populations to their Red List assessments, allowing us to look into the level of effort versus conservation need in each sub-population for the first time.” he said.

In a new paper published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, the Australian Rivers Institute member has shown that conservation focused studies of isotopes — chemical signals which can identify what an animal has fed on or where it is living — in sea turtles have almost all been done in the lowest priority places around the world. That is, the sub-populations that are not considered threatened.

“This means we should start focussing more on populations that are actually threatened, which is what I’m trying to do by focusing my new technique on critically endangered south Pacific loggerhead turtles” he said.

In a first for the field, the PhD candidate is using barnacles to try and track the movements of critically endangered loggerhead turtles.

Mr Pearson hopes they will help discover new “critical areas” for populations where conservation efforts should be focused.

Based on almost 50 years of recaptures and satellite tracking, researchers know a turtle can travel up to 2600km to get to a nesting beach.

“We know roughly where they can go but we don’t have a great understanding of the links between feeding and nesting areas and the proportions of turtles that use each location. That knowledge would point to critical areas we need to protect. This new technique should give us that level of understanding.”

Another recent paper in the journal Marine Biology, which reports growth rates of sea turtle barnacles, means that Mr Pearson can now analyse samples that match specific dates.

“Knowing when a sample was created means we can now predict where a turtle was at any given time. This has improved the accuracy of this new technique enormously” he said.

While satellite tracking methods could cost as much as $8000 per turtle, Mr Pearson’s technique only costs about $20.

With turtle nesting and hatching season upon Queensland, Mr Pearson said researchers would have another busy year with the need to protect our turtles increasing rapidly. Last season hot sand temperatures caused many hatchlings to die before making it out of the sand.

Turtle season runs until February with most of the activity happening at Mon Repos, Bundaberg.

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