Nesting and Emerging Habits of Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles

Nesting Habits of Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles

 
A Kemp's ridley sea turtle digging a nest in the sand with sand covering its shell.
This nesting Kemp’s ridley has become completely covered with blowing sand, making her difficult to see.

NPS Photo.

Here in Texas, Kemp's ridley sea turtles emerge from the sea to lay their eggs in the sand from April through mid-July. In Mexico, the nesting season is a little longer with nests being found from March through August.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles have several nesting habits which are believed to help protect them from predators. First, Kemp's ridley sea turtles nest mostly during the day when most predators, like coyote, are not on the beach. They can nest during the night, but this is rare. Second, nesting often occurs in groups or synchronous emergences called arribadas, Spanish for “arrivals”. Individual or solitary nesting is also common but by nesting in large numbers it is believed the turtles will overwhelm any predators on the beach. Third, Kemp’s ridleys often nest when winds are strong. Stormy conditions might be preferred because turtle tracks are hidden or blown away, leaving no evidence for predators. Finally, during nesting, Kemp’s ridleys can be camouflaged, not only due to the olive-green color of their carapace (shell) which blends in with the sand and vegetation but also, they can sometimes become partially covered with blowing sand or sand that they sweep onto themselves. This makes it difficult for predators (and people!) to see them on the beach.

During nesting, Kemp’s ridleys crawl up the beach, dig a cavity (hole) with their rear flippers, deposit the eggs in the cavity, cover the nest, and return to the sea. Nesting can occur anywhere on the beach from the high-tide line into the dunes. The entire process takes from 30 minutes to an hour. Like all turtles, Kemp’s ridleys do not care for or monitor their eggs after they are laid.

 
A Kemp's ridley sea turtle crawling across tire tracks on the beach, heading towards the ocean.
A hard-to-see Kemp's ridley sea turtle crawling back to the ocean crossing over tire tracks on the beach.

NPS Photo.

When emerging from the ocean and crawling up the beach, nesting turtles are cautious. If you see a turtle on the beach, do not rush up to her or you may frighten her back into the water without nesting. While depositing eggs, Kemp’s ridleys enter a trance-like state during which time they are oblivious to what it is going on around them leaving them particularly defenseless to threats like predators or vehicle traffic on the beach. At any time during the nesting process they will not and cannot move quickly to avoid a passing vehicle and can be crushed and killed. They sometimes nest in vehicular tire ruts and this, combined with their camouflage, increases their vulnerability to vehicle traffic.

 

Habits of Emerging Kemp's Ridley Hatchlings

 
Kemp's ridley hatchlings emerge from a sandy nest on the beach.
Kemp's ridley hatchlings emerge from an in situ nest on the beach.

NPS Photo.

Occasionally, Kemp's ridley nests are not found at egg laying and incubate unprotected in situ (or, in place) on the beach. This can happen two ways. In one situation, tracks from the nesting turtles are found, but the nest cannot be located so the suspected nest site is marked and biologists return to monitor for signs of nest predation or hatching. In the other situation, nests are found predated or hatched at sites that biologists have no previous knowledge of. Hatching success and survival of hatchlings is typically reduced for these in situ nests compared to protected nests.

Emergence from an in situ nest can occur at any time. When newly hatched sea turtles start moving around and become active they begin burning off their reserved energy. This active, high-energy state is called a “frenzy” and can happen at any time however, it typically occurs at night or early morning. Once hatchlings start emerging from the nest, it can take from 15 minutes to 2 days for all to evacuate the nest. Emerging hatchlings take slightly different paths and travel at slightly different speeds. They slowly crawl towards the water and stop periodically until they enter the surf. Once in the surf they typically swim away vigorously.

However, the trek to the sea can be perilous for the hatchlings. Hatchlings are difficult to see because of their small size and some have been killed at in situ nests elsewhere in Texas due to vehicle drive over. Some have been killed by predators (gulls, ghost crabs, coyotes). Also, some emerging at night have become disoriented by bright lights and traveled towards the vegetation instead of the water.

 
 
People watch as a biologist attends to a nesting Kemp's ridley sea turtle nesting in the sand on the beach.
An NPS biologist examines a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle for tags, as she deposits eggs in the sand.

NPS Photo.

 

Last updated: October 3, 2020

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