As we have transitioned out of cold stunning season, new life is on the horizon in the form of baby sea turtles. Around the globe, news stories are popping up of the exciting numbers of female sea turtles nesting on empty beaches. Promising arrivals of large leatherback sea turtles in Florida and Olive Ridley sea turtles in India lead us to believe it will be a big nesting season this year.

Did you know you can distinguish the species of sea turtle nesting by their tracks on the sand? There are seven sea turtles species: green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback, Olive ridley, Kemp’s ridley, and flatback. Each species nests in different areas of the world, but in some parts of the world multiple species nesting on a single beach. How do scientists tell the difference between nests? The first hint is the size of the tracks. For instance, a leatherback sea turtle is the largest of the seven species and can reach over 7 feet long and 1,500 pounds. In comparison, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle reaches a maximum size of 2.5 feet long and 110 pounds. Therefore, the size of the tracks is a first clue to the nesting species.

For individuals that are in the same size categories, like green and hawksbill sea turtles, scientists use the crawl tracks to indicate the species nest. Flippers in the sand leave a pattern in the sand similar to a tire-tread. Some species of sea-turtle, like hawksbills, alternate left, and right flippers to walk themselves along the beach. However, other species, like greens, use both left and right flippers at once to sweep or pull themselves up the beach. These key differences in movement help conservationists distinguish the species the next morning when scouting for nests.

Finally, for species that have the same crawl pattern and size group, you can identify the species of sea turtle in the way they throw the sand when making their nest. After the female is done depositing her eggs into the chamber in the sand, they throw sand or “spray” to cover their nests as a form of camouflage. Just like us, there are neat and messy individuals. Green sea turtles are notoriously messy; they tend to throw sand all over the area by pivoting their body in their deep pit and throwing “spray” with their front and back flippers. On the other hand, loggerhead sea turtles tend to have much more organized nests and shallower pit keeping their area much neater.

A combination of size, tracks, and nest area are great indications of the nesting species on each beach. Next time you are on a nesting beach, keep an eye out for these nest characteristics, and see if you can determine the species present on your beach.

Leslie J. Weinstein

Founder and President, Turtles Fly Too