Foraging Ecology of Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) on the Texas Coast, as Determined by Stable Isotope Analysis



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The green turtle, Chelonia mydas, is a circumglobal species that exhibits several important developmental or ontogenetic shifts throughout its life history. The first major shift occurs when juvenile turtles migrate from pelagic habitat, where they forage as omnivores, to coastal neritic habitat, where they become primarily herbivores, foraging on algae and seagrass. Anecdotal evidence and gut-content analyses suggest that juvenile green turtles in south Texas bays, such as the lower Laguna Madre and Aransas Bay, undergo an additional ontogenetic shift during this important life history stage. Evidence from stable isotope analysis (SIA) of scute tissues of green turtles from Texas' lower Laguna Madre and Aransas Bay supports an intermediate stage between this species' shift from pelagic waters to seagrass beds in neritic waters; this additional shift comprises an initial recruitment of post-pelagic juveniles to jetty habitat located on the channel passes Gulf-ward of adjacent bays before subsequently recruiting to seagrass beds in these bays. Examination of stable carbon ([delta]??C) and nitrogen ([delta]??N) isotopes in microlayers of scute tissue from several size classes of green turtles from the lower Laguna Madre and Aransas Bay was used to confirm the occurrence of two ontogenetic shifts. Smaller green turtles (< 35 cm SCL) exhibited more depleted [delta]??C signatures and more enriched [delta]??N signatures, consistent with jetty habitat, compared to those of larger counterparts (> 45 cm SCL) that displayed enriched [delta]??C signatures and depleted ??N signatures, consistent with seagrass habitat. Changes in the isotopic composition between these size classes indicate distinct shifts in diet. Post-pelagic juveniles first recruit to jetty habitat and forage primarily on algae, before subsequently shifting to seagrass beds and foraging primarily on seagrass. These findings indicate the use of a characteristic sequence of distinct habitats by multiple life history stages of green turtles in Texas bays, a conclusion with broad management implications for this endangered species.