Coral Reef / Great Barrier Reef / Australia / HRHDTV

 

 

 

What are Coral Reefs ?

 

 

Appearing as solitary forms in the fossil record more than 400 million years ago, corals are extremely ancient animals that evolved into modern reef-building forms over the last 25 million years. Coral reefs are unique (e.g., the largest structures on earth of biological origin) and complex systems. Rivaling old growth forests in longevity of their ecological communities, well-developed reefs reflect thousands of years of history (Turgeon and Asch, in press).

 

 

Corals and their Kind

 

Corals are anthozoans, the largest class of organisms within the phylum Cnidaria. Comprising over 6,000 known species, anthozoans also include sea fans, sea pansies and anemones. Stony corals (scleractinians) make up the largest order of anthozoans, and are the group primarily responsible for laying the foundations of, and building up, reef structures. For the most part, scleractinians are colonial organisms composed of hundreds to hundreds of thousands of individuals, called polyps (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Lalli and Parsons, 1995).

 

 

As members of the phylum Cnidaria, corals have only a limited degree of organ development. Each polyp consists of three basic tissue layers: an outer epidermis, an inner layer of cells lining the gastrovascular cavity which acts as an internal space for digestion, and a layer called the mesoglea in between (Barnes, R.D., 1987).

 

 

Structure of a typical coral polyp. All coral polyps share two basic structural features with other members of their phylum. The first is a gastrovascular cavity that opens at only one end. At the opening to this cavity, commonly called the mouth, food is consumed and some waste products are expelled. A second feature all corals possess is a circle of tentacles, extensions of the body wall that surround the mouth. Tentacles help the coral to capture and ingest plankton for food, clear away debris from the mouth, and act as the animal’s primary means of defense (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Levinton, 1995).

 

While coral polyps have structurally simple body plans, they possess several distinctive cellular structures. One of these is called a cnidocyte—a type of cell unique to, and characteristic of, all cnidarians. Found throughout the tentacles and epidermis, cnidocytes contain organelles called cnidae, which include nematocysts, a type of stinging cell. Because nematocytes are capable of delivering powerful, often lethal toxins, they are essential to capturing prey, and facilitate coralline agonistic interactions (Barnes, R.D., 1987).

 

Most corals, like other cnidarians, contain a symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae, within their gastrodermal cells. The coral provides the algae with a protected environment and the compounds necessary for photosynthesis. These include carbon dioxide, produced by coral respiration, and inorganic nutrients such as nitrates, and phosphates, which are metabolic waste products of the coral. In return, the algae produce oxygen and help the coral to remove wastes. Most importantly, they supply the coral with organic products of photosynthesis. These compounds, including glucose, glycerol, and amino acids, are utilized by the coral as building blocks in the manufacture of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as the synthesis of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The mutual exchange of algal photosynthates and cnidarian metabolites is the key to the prodigious biological productivity and limestone-secreting capacity of reef building corals (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Barnes, R.S.K. and Hughes, 1999; Lalli and Parsons, 1995; Levinton, 1995; Sumich, 1996).

 

Zooxanthellae often are critical elements in the continuing health of reef-building corals. As much as 90% of the organic material they manufacture photosynthetically is transferred to the host coral tissue (Sumich, 1996). If these algal cells are expelled by the polyps, which can occur if the colony undergoes prolonged physiological stress, the host may die shortly afterwards. The symbiotic zooxanthellae also confers its color to the polyp. If the zooxanthellae are expelled, the colony takes on a stark white appearance, which is commonly described as “coral bleaching” (Barnes, R.S.K. and Hughes, 1999; Lalli and Parsons, 1995).

 

Massive reef structures are formed when each stony coral polyp secretes a skeleton of CaCO3. Most stony corals have very small polyps, averaging 1 to 3 mm in diameter, but entire colonies can grow very large and weigh several tons. Although all corals secrete CaCO3, not all are reef builders. Some corals, such as Fungia sp., are solitary and have single polyps that can grow as large as 25 cm in diameter. Other coral species are incapable of producing sufficient quantities of CaCO3 to form reefs. Many of these corals do not rely on the algal metabolites produced by zooxanthellae, and live in deeper and/or colder waters beyond the geographic range of most reef systems (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Sumich, 1996).

 

The skeletons of stony corals are secreted by the lower portion of the polyp. This process produces a cup, called the calyx, in which the polyp sits. The walls surrounding the cup are called the theca, and the floor is called the basal plate. Thin, calcareous septa (sclerosepta), which provide structural integrity, protection, and an increased surface area for the polyp’s soft tissues, extend upward from the basal plate and radiate outward from its center. Periodically, a polyp will lift off its base and secrete a new floor to its cup, forming a new basal plate above the old one. This creates a minute chamber in the skeleton. While the colony is alive, CaCO3 is deposited, adding partitions and elevating the coral. When polyps are physically stressed, they contract into the calyx so that virtually no part is exposed above the skeletal platform. This protects the organism from predators and the elements (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Sumich, 1996).

 

lli and Parsons, 1995; Sumich, 1996).

 

 

 

 

 

Major coral reef sites are seen as red dots on this world map. Most of the reefs, with a few exceptions are found in tropical and semitropical waters, between 30° north and 30° south latitudes.

At other times, the polyp extends out of the calyx. The timing and extent to which a polyp extends from its protective skeleton often depends on the time of the day, as well as the species of coral. Most polyps extend themselves furthest when they feed on plankton at night.

 

In addition to a substantial horizontal component, the polyps of colonial corals are connected laterally to their neighbors by a thin horizontal sheet of tissue called the coenosarc, which covers the limestone between the calyxes. Together, polyps and coenosarc constitute a thin layer of living tissue over the block of limestone they have secreted. Thus, the living colony lies entirely above the skeleton (Barnes, R.S.K. and Hughes, 1999).

 

 

Colonies of reef-building (hermatypic) corals exhibit a wide range of shapes, but most can be classified within ten general forms. Branching corals have branches that also have (secondary) branches. Digitate corals look like fingers or clumps of cigars and have no secondary branches. Table corals are table-like structures of fused branches. Elkhorn coral has large, flattened branches. Foliose corals have broad plate-like portions rising above the substrate. Encrusting corals grow as a thin layer against the substrate. Submassive corals have knobs, columns or wedges protruding from an encrusting base. Massive corals are ball-shaped or boulder-like corals which may be small as an egg or large as a house. Mushroom corals resemble the attached or unattached tops of mushrooms. Cup corals look like egg cups or cups that have been squashed, elongated or twisted (McManus et al. 1997). While the growth patterns of stony coral colonies are primarily species-specific, a colony’s geographic location, environmental factors (e.g., wave action, temperature, light exposure), and the density of surrounding corals may affect and/or alter the shape of the colony as it grows (Barnes, R.D. 1987; Barnes, R.S.K. and Hughes 1999, Lalli and Parsons, 1995).

 

In addition to affecting the shape of a colony’s growth, environmental factors influence the rates at which various species of corals grow. One of the most significant factors is sunlight. On sunny days, the calcification rates of corals can be twice as fast as on cloudy days (Barnes, R.S.K. and Hughes, 1999). This is likely a function of the symbiotic zooxanthellae algae, which play a unique role in enhancing the corals’ ability to synthesize calcium carbonate. Experiments have shown that rates of calcification slow significantly when zooxanthellae are removed from corals, or when corals are kept in shade or darkness (Lalli and Parsons 1995).

 

Image of coral core samples

Coral core samples reveal horizontal growth lines.

In general, massive corals tend to grow slowly, increasing in size from 0.5 cm to 2 cm per year. However, under favorable conditions (high light exposure, consistent temperature, moderate wave action), some species can grow as much as 4.5 cm per year. In contrast to the massive species, branching colonies tend to grow much faster. Under favorable conditions, these colonies can grow vertically by as much as 10 cm per year. This fast growth rate is not as advantageous as it may seem, however. Mechanical constraints limit the maximum size that branching corals can achieve. As they become larger, a heavier load is placed on the relatively small area attached to the substratum, rendering the colony increasingly unstable. Under these circumstances, the branches are prone to snapping off during strong wave action. The opposite is true of the massive-shaped corals, which become more stable as they grow larger (Barnes, R.S.K. and Hughes, 1999).

 

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Reef-building corals are restricted in their geographic distribution. This is because the algal-cnidarian symbiotic machinery needs a narrow and consistent band of environmental conditions to produce the copious quantities of limestone necessary for reef formation. The formation of highly consolidated reefs only occur where the temperature does not fall below 18°C for extended periods of time. This specific temperature restriction -18°C- does not, however, apply to the corals themselves. In Japan, where this has been studied in detail, approximately half of all coral species occur where the sea temperature regularly falls to 14°C an approximately 25% occur where it falls to 11°C (Veron 2000). Many grow optimally in water temperatures between 23° and 29°C, but some can tolerate temperatures as high as 40°C for limited periods of time. Most require very salty (saline) water ranging from 32 to 42 parts per thousand. The water must also be clear to permit high light penetration. The corals’ requirement for high light also explains why most reef-building species are restricted to the euphotic (light penetration) zone, approximately 70 m (Lalli and Parsons, 1995).

 

 

Generally, there are about twice as many coral species in Pacific Ocean reefs, such as this Fagatele Bay reef, as in Atlantic Ocean reefs.

The number of species of corals on a reef declines rapidly in deeper water. High levels of suspended sediments can smother coral colonies, clogging their mouths which can impair feeding. Suspended sediments can also serve to decrease the depth to which light can penetrate. In colder regions, murkier waters, or at depths below 70 m, corals may still exist on hard substrates, but their capacity to secrete limestone is greatly reduced (Barnes, R.D., 1987).

 

In light of such stringent environmental restrictions, reefs generally are confined to tropical and semitropical waters. The diversity of reef corals, i.e., the number of species, decreases in higher latitudes up to about 30° north and south, beyond which reef corals are usually not found. Bermuda, at 32° north latitude, is an exception to this rule because it lies directly in the path of the Gulf Stream’s warming waters (Barnes, R.D., 1987).

 

Another factor that seems to affect the diversity of reef-building corals is the ocean in which they are located. At least 500 reef-building species are known to exist in the waters of the Indo-Pacific region. In comparison, the Atlantic Ocean contains approximately 62 known species. The fossil record shows that many species once found across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans gradually went extinct in the Atlantic, where the affects of ice ages had strong impacts on the Caribbean area wherein most of the Atlantic reefs reside. Following the closure of the seaway between the Caribbean and the Pacific, several species of corals became restricted to the Caribbean (Veron 2000).

 

  

All three reef types—fringing, barrier and atoll—share similarities in their biogeographic profiles.Bottom topography, depth, wave and current strength, light, temperature, and suspended sediments all act to create characteristic horizontal and vertical zones of corals, algae and other species. While these zones vary according to the location and type of reef, the major divisions common to most reefs, as they move seaward from the shore, are the reef flat, reef crest or algal ridge, buttress zone, and seaward slope.

 

 

The reef flat, or back reef, is located on the sheltered side of the reef. It extends outward from the shore; and may be highly variable in character. Varying in width from 20 or 30 meters to more than a few thousand, the reef flat may range from only a few centimeters to a few meters deep, and large parts may be exposed at low tide. The substrate is formed of coral rock and loose sand. Beds of sea grasses often develop in the sandy regions, and both encrusting and filamentous algae are common.

 

The reef crest, or algal ridge, is the highest point of the reef, and is exposed at low tide. Lying on the outer side of the reef, it is exposed to the full fury of incoming waves. The width of this zone typically varies from a few, to perhaps 50 m. In this severe habitat, a few species of encrusting calcareous red algae flourish, producing new reef material as rapidly as the waves erode it. Where wave action is severe, living corals are practically nonexistent, but in situations of more moderate wave action, the reef crest tends to be dominated by stoutly branching corals. These closely growing, robust colonies form ramparts able to withstand the heavy seas. Small crabs, shrimps, cowries and other animals reside in the labyrinthine subsurface cavities of the reef crest, protected from waves and predators (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Lalli and Parsons, 1995; Sumich, 1996).

 

 

The outermost seaward slope (also called the fore-reef) extends from the low-tide mark into deep water. Just below the low-tide mark to approximately 20 m depth is a rugged zone of spurs, or buttresses, radiating out from the reef. Deep channels that slope down the reef face are interspersed between the buttresses. These alternating spurs and channels may be several meters wide and up to 300 m long (Barnes, R.D. 1987; Lalli and Parsons, 1995; Sumich, 1996).

 

The buttress zone serves two main purposes in the reef system. First, it acts to dissipate the tremendous force of unabating waves and stabilizes the reef structure. Second, the channels between the buttresses drain debris and sediment off the reef and into deeper water. Massive corals and encrusting coralline algae thrive in this zone of breaking waves, intense sunlight, and abundant oxygen. Small fish inhabit the many holes and crevices on this portion of the reef, and many larger fish including sharks, jacks, barracudas and tunas patrol the buttresses and grooves in search of food (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Lalli and Parsons, 1995; Sumich, 1996).

 

 

The dropoff of a reef slope can extend hundreds of feet downward.

 

 

Continuing down the seaward slope to about 20 m, optimal light intensity decreases, but reduced wave action allows the maximum number of coral species to develop. Beginning at approximately 30 to 40 m, sediments accumulate on the gentle slope, and corals become patchy in distribution. Sponges, sea whips, sea fans, and ahermatypic (non-reef-building) corals become increasingly abundant and gradually replace hermatypic corals in deeper, darker water (Barnes, R.D., 1987; La

 

 

Whales on Planet Earth & Biosphere in the Ocean

 

The critically-endangered blue whale — the largest animal known to have ever existed — has returned to the waters near the remote island of South Georgia near Antarctica, almost 100 years after the mega-mammal was nearly made extinct by industrial whaling.

Researchers say a recent survey of the waters around the sub-Antarctic island — a center for industrial whaling until it was banned in the 1960s — recorded dozens of blue whales where only a single whale had been seen between 1998 and 2018.

"We've had indications in previous years that there might be more blue whales starting to come back to South Georgia," marine mammal ecologist Susannah Calderan told Live Science. "But we were very favorably surprised by quite how many we did see this year."

Calderan, a research fellow at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), is the lead author of a study into the resurgence of blue whales near South Georgia published Thursday (Nov. 19) in the journal Endangered Species Research.

 

In January and February this year, she was on board the New Zealand research ship Braveheart for an expedition into the waters around South Georgia led by whale biologist Jen Jackson of the British Antarctic Survey, a co-author of the new research.

The scientists, she said, were amazed to find numerous blue whales in a region where they were once eradicated — — 38 sightings on the surface over a few weeks, comprising a total of 58 individual whales, along with many acoustic detections by "sonobuoys" equipped to monitor underwater whale songs.

outh Georgia is the largest island in a remote South Atlantic archipelago, known as South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. 

The island is about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) from the coast of Antarctica, but it is situated within the Antarctic convergence — the hydrological boundary between the cold waters around Antarctica and the warmer waters farther north.

 

It's now only inhabited by people for a few months every summer, but South Georgia had a prominent role in the history of Antarctic exploration.

In the early 20th century, it became a center for industrial whaling — effectively the "Ground Zero" of whaling, first for humpbacks, and later for blue whales.

Related: 50 of the most endangered species on the planet

According to Calderan's study, more than 42,000 blue whales were killed around South Georgia between 1904 and 1971, most of them before the mid-1930s. "In the early 1900s, South Georgia waters thronged with blue whales; within a little over 30 years, they were all but gone," the researchers wrote.

 

"It was just a matter of luck that they weren't wiped out altogether," Calderan said. "By the end of whaling, it was estimated that blue whale populations were 0.15% of their pre-whaling levels. They couldn't have hung on much longer."

Although populations of blue whales have been increasing in other parts of the Antarctic in recent decades, the majestic ocean dwellers were almost unseen in the waters around South Georgia until the recent expedition, she said.

Whale resurgence

The near-extinction of blue whales around South Georgia in the early 20th century may have resulted in the loss of their "cultural memory" of the abundance there of Antarctic krill — tiny swimming crustaceans found in huge swarms in the Southern Ocean and the only food of blue whales.Knowledge of whale feeding grounds may be passed on from mother whales to their calves. "There was a cultural memory, maybe, of animals that used to come to South Georgia that was lost because they were wiped out," Calderan said. "They couldn't pass on the knowledge of the feeding grounds because there weren't any of them left."

 

But the evidence of the recent survey suggested at least some blue whales have rediscovered South Georgia's abundance of krill.

"I think we may well be seeing evidence of site fidelity to certain feeding areas, which would be an explanation for why [blue whale] numbers started recovering in the wider Antarctic, but has taken longer to recover at South Georgia," Calderan said.

 

The increase in blue whales around South Georgia comes after BAS research indicating the population of humpback whales in the region has also increased — like blue whales, humpbacks were all but driven to extinction by industrial whaling.

 

"It's a good sign," Calderan said. "This was an area that was particularly hard hit by whaling, and it is really encouraging that we're starting to see whales there again."

 

Originally published on Live Science. 

 

Protokollierung & Edit Just Release  / 10 Hour Whale Sea Creature Documentary with Spiritual Music & Great Pristine Beauty View on the Ocean

 

 

Imagine yourself floating freely in a clear, tropical ocean. Through this liquid universe moves Earth’s largest, most majestic and graceful creatures.

You are immersed in the mystical blue world of humpback whales, sperm whales, and blue whales.

Whales roam throughout all of the world's oceans, communicating with complex and mysterious sounds. Their sheer size amazes us: the blue whale can reach lengths of more than 100 feet and weigh up to 200 tons—as much as 33 elephants.

Despite living in the water, whales breathe air. And like humans, they are warm-blooded mammals who nurse their young. A thick layer of fat called blubber insulates them from cold ocean waters.

Some whales are known as baleen whales, including blue, right, bowhead, sei, and gray whales. This refers to the fact that they have special bristle-like structures in their mouths (called baleen) that strain food from the water. Other whales, such as beluga or sperm whales, have teeth.

 

Whales are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Whales play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere; each great whale sequesters an estimated 33 tons of CO2 on average, thus playing their part in the fight against climate change.

Unfortunately, their large size and mythical aura does not protect them; six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable, even after decades of protection. An estimated minimum of 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed each year as a result of fisheries bycatch, while others succumb to a myriad of threats including shipping and habitat loss.

 

Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling and a ban on international trade of whale products, three countries—Iceland, Japan, and Norway—continue their commercial whale hunts. Over 1,000 whales a year are killed for such commercial purposes. The blue whale, the largest animal ever known to have existed, was almost exterminated in the 20th century due to commercial whaling.

 

The United States and other International Whaling Commission (IWC) member countries have tried for years to persuade Iceland, Japan, and Norway to end their whaling as it undermines the effectiveness of the commission's commercial whaling ban. However, in 2019, Japan chose to walk away from the IWC and now conducts commercial whaling in its own territorial waters, outside of any international controls.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE

Warming oceans and loss of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic can affect the habitats and food of whales. Large patches of tiny plants and animals that they feed on will likely move or change in abundance as climate change alters seawater temperature, winds, and ocean currents. These changes can mean whales such as humpbacks and blues may have to migrate much further to reach feeding grounds, leaving them with less time to forage for food. The shift in food availability due to climate fluctuations has already hurt the reproductive rates of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

 

NON Whale Affiliated 

A turtle steping forwardly & looking just great / A Tortoise which is maybe in juvenile age / Corpulent the solid shell on the back /  Beautifully animalistic creature & sightseeing for us humans
A turtle steping forwardly & looking just great / A Tortoise which is maybe in juvenile age / Corpulent the solid shell on the back / Beautifully animalistic creature & sightseeing for us humans

WHEN WILL DILLMAN’S phone started ringing shortly before lunch on August 14, he thought nothing of it. But the news was big. Fifty miles from the biologist’s office in South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, state law enforcement officers had happened upon Nathan Horton, a notorious turtle trapper and trafficker, hiding out in a storage shed. Nearby, they found more than 200 live turtles.

 

Earlier that morning the officers had gone out to Chester County to question Terry Dewayne Lucas, an associate of Horton’s, about illegal shipments of eastern box turtles sent outside the state. But when they arrived at Lucas’s house, they discovered a boat from Louisiana parked in the yard—filled with turtle traps.

 

“We knew from past investigation case work that Mr. Horton had some dealings/operated in Louisiana,” wrote Robert McCullough, a spokesman for the law enforcement team at the Department of Natural Resources, in Columbia, in an email. “He was last seen/known to be using a boat from Louisiana.” During questioning, the Lucas family revealed that Horton was in the shed.

The officer who’d called Dillman urged him to come out quickly to identify the turtles and care for them. It was a sweltering day, and the reptiles were clearly dehydrated and malnourished.

This was Dillman’s fourth or fifth such call since he’d started working at the natural resources department in 2013. “Thankfully, these are rare,” he says. “When you find one of these cases, it makes you wonder: How much more is out there that we’re not catching?”

 

Possibly a lot. It’s hard to pin down the scale of the pet trade in wild-caught U.S. turtles, experts say, but U.S. law enforcement probes have turned up an increasing number of big turtle trafficking cases in recent years. In each, the poachers and sellers have been responsible for helping transfer large numbers of turtles across states borders and on to Asia. Ryan Bessey, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent who’s been focusing on the exotic turtle trade, says demand for these animals in Asia “has skyrocketed in the last five to ten years.” According to Bessey, North American species, including diamondback terrapins, box turtles, spotted turtles, and wood turtles seem to be particularly popular in the Asian exotic pet trade.Court documents suggest that Horton’s operation alone may have helped smuggle hundreds—if not thousands—of American turtles to China. According to surveillance footage and records obtained by law enforcement, the turtles were shipped from Atlanta to Los Angeles and onward to Guangzhou, in southern China. (It’s legal in the U.S. to trap and sell some turtle species domestically or export them abroad with proper paperwork, but state laws typically cap the trapping numbers. South Carolina doesn’t allow commercial-scale trapping at all.)

 

More recently, on October 18, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced that during a six-month period, two alleged poachers had illegally taken more than 4,000 turtles from the state’s waters. One of the suspects had been selling his catch to a buyer with links to Asian markets, according to the commission. The men’s catch included Florida box turtles, eastern box turtles, and several other species. (It’s illegal in Florida to sell wild turtles.)

“Wild turtle populations cannot sustain the level of harvest that took place here,” said Brooke Talley, the reptile and amphibian conservation coordinator for the commission, in a statement. “This will likely have consequences for the entire ecosystem.”

Back in South Carolina, when Dillman arrived at Lucas’s property, he found 216 eastern box turtles. A few had already succumbed to the harsh conditions. To revive the rest, Dillman soaked them in water and gave them snacks such as strawberries, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Despite that, he says, five more died.

 

Revered reptiles

“Much of Asia has always revered turtles for longevity and traditional Chinese medicine,” says Eric Goode, founder of the Turtle Conservancy. Now, with newfound wealth in the region, he says, turtles are just another rare, coveted item to collect, like wine, fine art, and cars. Demand has already wiped out large numbers of native turtles in Asia, making American turtles even more attractive, experts say. (Learn more about turtle trafficking in Southeast Asia.)

Court documents, interviews with turtle experts, and studies point to China and Hong Kong as primary destinations for trafficked American turtles. Still, other Asian nations—Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia—are also popular markets for pet turtles. “The Asian turtle market is taking turtles out of Africa, Mexico, South America”—not just the U.S., adds Goode, who does surveys of turtles for sale at markets in Indonesia, Thailand, China, and Japan.

A 2018 analysis of the global conservation status of turtles and tortoises puts the problem in East Asia in stark terms: “An unsustainable turtle trade has gradually spread and expanded, first regionally and then globally, as wild turtle populations have been sequentially exploited, with many rendered commercially and ecologically extinct.” The Chinese three-striped box turtle, for example, is almost extinct in the wild, a victim of its popularity in the pet trade and for meat and traditional medicine. The Chinese box turtle, sometimes called the yellow-margined box turtle, is endangered for the same reasons. Willem Roosenburg, a turtle expert at Ohio University in Athens and the president of the Herpetologists League, says diamondback terrapins—caught in the past for meat consumption in soup—are now also being trapped and sent to Hong Kong and China for the exotic pet industry. Beyond poaching, turtles face other serious threats in the U.S., including mortality in crab pots, habitat loss, and predation by racoon and foxes.

 

Turtle poaching is particularly worrying to the Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation biologists. That’s because adult turtles are targeted—hatchlings are harder to find, says Kurt Buhlmann, a senior research associate at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. And, he says, as few as 10 to 25 percent of hatchlings may survive their first year in the wild. Because popularly targeted adult species can take five years or more to reach reproductive age, drawing down adult populations for the pet market could cause a species to collapse quickly—perhaps even before biologists and law enforcement become fully aware of the problem, Dillman says. “It could represent local extirpations for these species.” Buhlmann is now caring for the eastern box turtles seized from Nathan Horton and hopes to find out more about where they came from and whether they’re disease-free—prerequisites for possible reintroduction into the wild.

 

 Playing catch-up

 

U.S. law enforcement agencies have been trying to coordinate across state lines to reduce illicit turtle sales. But, as Bessey says, because it’s a black market trade, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know its total scale: “We are not seeing the total number of turtles being trafficked.” Moreover, the lack of federal and state enforcement officers relative to the vast areas and myriad water bodies available to poachers makes the prospect of shutting down illicit sales seem a distant prospect.

 

Some breakfast in the forest & rural spot / Confident & Sure Turtle ( Tortoise ) is in grown up stage & development / Rare
Some breakfast in the forest & rural spot / Confident & Sure Turtle ( Tortoise ) is in grown up stage & development / Rare

 

Global turtle demand has even made conservationists cautious about discussing locations of turtle populations at academic conferences or in published papers. (Poachers have been known to mine the academic literature for clues about potential targets.) Jacqueline Litzgus, a biology professor at Laurentian University, in Ontario, Canada, says she won’t even discuss vague geographic details at meetings.

 

At one of her Ontario study sites for wood turtles in the mid-1990s, she says, some “70 percent” of the turtles disappeared in just one or two years after a student did a thesis paper on them, which the poachers may have been able to obtain. No one ever found any turtle carcasses, Litzgus says, so she and her colleagues surmised that poaching—not disease—was to blame.

When turtle traffickers are caught, they’re typically charged with conspiracy to smuggle wildlife or with contravention of the Lacey Act, a federal statute that prohibits capture or sale of any species taken in violation of U.S., Native American, or foreign laws. Violations of the Lacey Act can lead to fines of up to $20,000, imprisonment of up to five years, or both.

 

Recent turtle busts have resulted in notable prison sentences—a rarity for wildlife crimes. In 2016, Kai Xu was sentenced to 57 months in prison by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan after he pleaded guilty to smuggling protected turtle species from the U.S. to China. Steven Baker, who led a syndicate trafficking various protected species between the U.S. and China, was apprehended in South Carolina in 2018 and sentenced in March 2019 to 27 months in prison.

 

Beginning in 2015, Ryan Bessey led an investigation into another prolific turtle trafficker, retired journalist David Sommers, who, over many years, trapped thousands of diamondback terrapins in New Jersey for sale to buyers engaged in smuggling the animals to Asia. When law enforcement officers arrested him, in July 2018, he told them that he’d sold roughly a thousand diamondback terrapins a year to buyers in the U.S. and Canada, netting him between $50,000 and $75,000. His clients included people known to ship the turtles to Asia, Bessey says.

 

Two months ago Sommers pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act when he falsely labeled packages containing the protected animals. He was sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to six months imprisonment and a fine of $250,000 in restitution to the state of New Jersey.

 

When the officers searched his house, in 2018, they recovered more than 3,000 diamondback terrapin hatchlings and almost two dozen box turtles, according to court records. They also found oxytocin, a drug used to induce labor in humans—and known to cause female turtles to release their eggs.

 

“He would take the turtles back to his home in Pennsylvania, and rather than let them naturally progress to a point where they were able to lay or drop their eggs, he would inject them with oxytocin,” Bessey says. “Once they then laid their eggs, he would sell off the adult females—a red flag because a legitimate breeder wouldn’t sell off his breeding stock.”

When turtle traffickers are caught, they’re typically charged with conspiracy to smuggle wildlife or with contravention of the Lacey Act, a federal statute that prohibits capture or sale of any species taken in violation of U.S., Native American, or foreign laws. Violations of the Lacey Act can lead to fines of up to $20,000, imprisonment of up to five years, or both.

 

Recent turtle busts have resulted in notable prison sentences—a rarity for wildlife crimes. In 2016, Kai Xu was sentenced to 57 months in prison by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan after he pleaded guilty to smuggling protected turtle species from the U.S. to China. Steven Baker, who led a syndicate trafficking various protected species between the U.S. and China, was apprehended in South Carolina in 2018 and sentenced in March 2019 to 27 months in prison.

 

Beginning in 2015, Ryan Bessey led an investigation into another prolific turtle trafficker, retired journalist David Sommers, who, over many years, trapped thousands of diamondback terrapins in New Jersey for sale to buyers engaged in smuggling the animals to Asia. When law enforcement officers arrested him, in July 2018, he told them that he’d sold roughly a thousand diamondback terrapins a year to buyers in the U.S. and Canada, netting him between $50,000 and $75,000. His clients included people known to ship the turtles to Asia, Bessey says.

 

 

Two months ago Sommers pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act when he falsely labeled packages containing the protected animals. He was sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to six months imprisonment and a fine of $250,000 in restitution to the state of New Jersey.

 

When the officers searched his house, in 2018, they recovered more than 3,000 diamondback terrapin hatchlings and almost two dozen box turtles, according to court records. They also found oxytocin, a drug used to induce labor in humans—and known to cause female turtles to release their eggs.

 

“He would take the turtles back to his home in Pennsylvania, and rather than let them naturally progress to a point where they were able to lay or drop their eggs, he would inject them with oxytocin,” Bessey says. “Once they then laid their eggs, he would sell off the adult females—a red flag because a legitimate breeder wouldn’t sell off his breeding stock.”

Sommers admitted to law enforcement that in addition to illegally collecting terrapin eggs and female turtles from New Jersey’s shores for “five to 15 years” (as stated in his plea agreement) and selling off the females days after they laid their eggs, he falsely claimed to be a turtle breeder, allowing him to appear legitimate and sell the poached turtles as “captive-bred.”

 

As court documents note, what he really did was pluck turtles from the wild, sell off their eggs, and then ship the remaining turtles to clients via the U.S. postal service or FedEx in socks or pouches, after first taping their legs to restrict their movement.

 

Repeat offender

Nathan Horton’s illegal turtle trapping activities first came to the attention of law enforcement in 2016 in Georgia. Federal court documents state that he was apprehended trapping turtles on Lake Jackson, a reservoir 45 miles southeast of Atlanta. Horton admitted that he was a commercial turtle collector and had a thousand active turtle traps on the lake. He said the turtles were shipped to a Californian buyer who then exported them to China. He was given a fine of $300 for using illegal traps.

 

But that didn’t deter Horton. A year later, he bought 46 turtles from undercover officers in Georgia. (The turtles had been implanted with transponders to help track them.) According to law enforcement, Horton told the undercover officers not to worry that the catch was illegal—if they were found out, he assured, the fines would be no worse than a “speeding ticket.”

 

About a week later, on August 20, 2017, Horton dropped off hundreds of turtles—including some bought from the undercover agents—for a flight to Los Angeles. Accompanied by fraudulent paperwork, they were then flown to Guangzhou, China. The illegal shipments were documented in surveillance footage and records, but court documents make no mention of any action against Horton for this incident.

Then, on August 21, Georgia law enforcement officers did cite Horton—this time for illegally placing traps on Lake Blackshear, about 150 miles south of Atlanta. The penalties: fines of about $4,350. It’s unclear whether Horton has paid that sum, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, which is handling his overall prosecution, declined to comment on these violations or provide further details about his case. After that 2017 incident, law enforcement lost track of him, according to McCullough, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources spokesman.

That is until his arrest in South Carolina this August. Once again, Horton admitted to crimes related to turtles. According to the official law enforcement report, he said he’d been selling more than 20 eastern box turtles a year. It’s a misdemeanor in South Carolina to remove more than 10 eastern box turtles at a time, or more than 20 in a year, and the penalty is a fine of up to $200, up Horton’s arrest warrant, however, didn’t mention the misdemeanor. Instead it cited more serious charges, including that allegedly he violated the Lacey Act and engaged in interstate transport and sale of stolen property. His full charges and court date have not yet been set, and his court-appointed lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Fish and Wildlife’s Bessey says there’s a fine line between spurring interest in turtles and making sure that the enthusiasm doesn’t encourage people to take them from the wild. “There are threats around every corner for turtles,” he says.

 

“Even posting a photograph of one of these turtles, if taken with an iPhone, is a problem because it has an embedded latitude and longitude,” Ohio University’s Roosenburg says.

 

“Let turtles be,” Bessey adds. “Don’t grab a turtle you see crossing the road and take him home—just put him on the other side of the road in the direction he was going.”to 30 days in jail, or both.