Marine Biology

, Volume 161, Issue 8, pp 1711–1724 | Cite as

Biological and environmental influences on the trophic ecology of leatherback turtles in the northwest Atlantic Ocean

  • Bryan P. WallaceEmail author
  • Joel Schumacher
  • Jeffrey A. Seminoff
  • Michael C. James
Feature Article


Understanding the causes and consequences of variability in trophic status is important for interpreting population dynamics and for identifying important habitats for protected species like marine turtles. In the northwest Atlantic Ocean, many leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) from distinct breeding stocks throughout the Wider Caribbean region migrate to Canadian waters seasonally to feed, but their trophic status during the migratory and breeding cycle and its implications have not yet been described. In this study, we used stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of bulk skin to characterize the trophic status of leatherbacks in Atlantic Canadian waters by identifying trophic patterns among turtles and the factors influencing those patterns. δ15N values of adult males and females were significantly higher than those of turtles of unknown gender (i.e., presumed to be subadults), and δ15N increased significantly with body size. We found no significant differences among average stable isotope values of turtles according to breeding stock origin. Significant inter-annual variation in δ15N among cohorts probably reflects broad-scale oceanographic variability that drives fluctuations in stable isotope values of nutrient sources transferred through several trophic positions to leatherbacks, variation in baseline isotope values among different overwintering habitats used by leatherbacks, or a combination of both. Our results demonstrate that understanding effects of demographic and physiological factors, as well as oceanographic conditions, on trophic status is key to explaining observed patterns in population dynamics and for identifying important habitats for widely distributed, long-lived species like leatherbacks.


Stable Isotope Nova Scotia Trophic Status Stable Isotope Analysis Nest Beach 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The work was supported by Canadian Wildlife Federation, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (USA), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Fieldwork in Canada was conducted in association with the Canadian Sea Turtle Network, and in accordance with guidelines of the Canadian Council on Animal Care, with review and approval by the Dalhousie University Animal Care Committee (permit numbers 00008, 02053, 04055, 06069, 07077, 08077, 09069 and 11073) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (license and permit numbers 2001425, 2002550, 2003534, 2004519, MAR-SA-2004004, 2005557, MAR-SA-2006006, 2006526, MARSA-2006006, 2007024, MAR-SA-2007006, 2008454, MAR-SA-2008006, 323395, 323398, 326240 and 332697). Samples were imported into the USA over a span of 10 years under CITES permit 844694/9 and were archived in the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammal and Turtle Molecular Research Sample Collection. We thank employees and volunteers of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network and members of its field research team, including D. Archibald, L. Bennett, B. Fricker, H. Fricker, K. Fricker, K. Hamelin, P. MacDonald, K. Martin, B. Mitchell, and M. Nicholson for collection and organization of samples and other data used in this study. We are grateful to Erin LaCasella (NOAA SWFSC) and D. Archibald (CSTN) for assistance with sample preparation and shipping. We thank P. Dutton, S. Roden, and K. Stewart (NOAA SWFSC) for providing critical insights on stock assignments of Canadian turtles based on distinct northwest Atlantic leatherback breeding stocks. We also thank J. Curtis at the University of Florida for conducting the mass spectrometry analyses, V. Saba and K. McMahon for helpful discussions, and K. Dodge and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments that improved the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bryan P. Wallace
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Joel Schumacher
    • 3
  • Jeffrey A. Seminoff
    • 3
  • Michael C. James
    • 4
  1. 1.Stratus ConsultingBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Nicholas School of the EnvironmentDuke UniversityBeaufortUSA
  3. 3.Southwest Fisheries Science CenterNMFS-NOAALa JollaUSA
  4. 4.Population Ecology DivisionFisheries and Oceans CanadaDartmouthCanada

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