November 2, 2008
If you’re an endangered animal, you’d better hope that human beings find you cute like a Vancouver Island marmot, or charismatic like a grizzly, or majestic like a whooping crane. Then supermodels and rock stars and Disney animators will make emotional appeals on your behalf and the general public will feel genuinely sorry for you and you’re in the clear.
The leatherback sea turtle, whose catastrophic decline in the last two decades has landed it in the “critically endangered” category, isn’t what you’d call cute or charismatic. (Although it is kind of staggering in its primitive grandeur. Adult leatherbacks can grow to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. They are, pretty much, living dinosaurs.) Its virtues are subtler. The campaign to save the leatherback is liable to attract not movie stars but poets, or perhaps philosophers.
The leatherback is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. At least it was until 10 years ago, when Todd Jones, then at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton—who would move to Vancouver and become the first scientist to successfully raise leatherbacks in captivity, at a lab at UBC—took up their cause. Before then, all we knew about leatherbacks was that they hatched in the dead of night on a tropical beach, scurried down the sand, and, if they made it to the ocean alive, started swimming. And then they were gone. Where they went between that instant of departure and the time they waddled ashore as adults perhaps 20 years later, nobody knew. (The legendary turtle researcher Archie Carr called this stretch “the lost years.”) The leatherbacks were believed to command entire oceans and move into neighbouring ones, their whole lives consisting, Michael Phelps–like, of swimming and eating. (Unlike Phelps, who must occasionally stop to cash endorsement cheques, leatherbacks never stop swimming. They fuel on the go by swimming with their mouths open, their jaws moving.) Because of this cradle-to-nest existence in the open sea, beyond even continental shelves, leatherbacks live in a world without obvious dimensions: infinite space. “They have no concept of barriers,” says Jones. “That was the main obstacle to overcome.”
If you put a leatherback in a tank in a lab, it will swim into the side: bump, bump, bump. It will never make the adjustment. “They’re a deep-diving animal, so they’ll also dive down and hit the bottom of the tank over and over,” says the 33-year-old zoologist. “They get cuts and abrasions leading to infection and death.” (Leatherbacks are immunocompromised, like AIDS patients—likely because they’ve lived in such a dilute medium, relatively free of bacteria, that they don’t develop much tolerance.) It’s not that they can’t see the walls. “They are visual animals,” says Jones. “They can spy their food and they can go for it. It’s just that they seem to have no grasp of the idea of a barrier. So whether they see the wall or not, they don’t know what it is. They might understand that there’s an obstruction there. But in their life they aren’t really bothered by obstructions. To a leatherback an obstruction is just something you swim around and keep going.”
The very same factors that have made leatherbacks so vulnerable in any container that holds them for study are what make them so important. They are at home everywhere we are not. Like very few other species, they have no defined range. The whole world is their range. So anything
that happens in any marine
from climate change to overfishing to pollution—affects leatherbacks. It registers in them, in their physiology, in ways scientists like Jones can read. “Leatherbacks,” he says, “are the poster species for the health of the world’s oceans.”
And that, despite the poor odds of success, was why Jones and two colleagues four
years ago made a midnight grab of 20 leatherback hatchlings from a beach in the British Virgin Islands. The trio brought them back to UBC in insulated canvas coolers they carried on the plane, spritzing them periodically with water to keep them moist.
The question was how to turn a five-by-one-and-a-half-metre tank into a boundless universe. Jones had had a brainwave about this. He’d contrived a backpack-like harness made of soft rubber tubing that would fit over the shells of young turtles so that they’d hang suspended, as if in the open ocean, driving forward against the resistance of 100-pound-test fishing line, their flippers churning perpetual slow figure eights. Did Jones’s hatchlings now believe they were back home? It’s impossible to say. But the simple fact that they survived suggests that wherever they thought they were was a place they could live with.
The turtles grew. They hoovered down a diet Jones created to simulate what leatherbacks eat in the wild. (He calls it “squid Jell-O.”) He created an antibiotic regimen to tackle the inevitable infections and worked out the day/night cycles of artificial light. “It took me easily a decade to get all of this right.” (The feat did not go unnoticed. His research has been widely published, and this year Popular Science magazine included Jones on its list of groundbreaking scientists it calls “The Brilliant 10.”)
Jones has the kind of wholesome enthusiasm you see in the hosts of TV science shows for kids. He seems to have ended up exactly where he needed to be: as the greatest ally of a creature he could identify with more than most. Jones grew up fishing and surfing and diving and basically wanting to be Jacques Cousteau. In college he allowed himself to be steered into the more lucrative field of ocean engineering, until it dawned on him two years into the program that “this isn’t even close to marine biology.” He marched into the faculty office and announced he was switching to biology, coming home. Other people’s plans for you are just an obstruction you swim around to keep going—in Jones’s case, to a subspecialty that has required the marathon cadence and all-consuming focus of, well, a leatherback.
Jones’s niche is in the new field of “conservation physiology,” which bridges the interests of his past and current advisers. Conservation and animal physiology don’t seem natural bedmates, but Jones has found a productive cascade of forensics where they join: call it CSI North Pacific.
The idea is that if you look at the micro picture—the metabolism and growth rate of an individual turtle—you can figure out where that turtle, given its energy budget, can go. And once you know where it can go, you look at the macro picture, the environment, for clues about where it will go.
“How much food does a leatherback need?” asks Jones. “To reach adulthood a leatherback will consume 165 tonnes of jellyfish. That’s one turtle. Multiply that by, let’s say, 80,000 juvenile leatherbacks in the Pacific. Where are they going to find that much food? So now you bring out the maps.”
He pops up a PowerPoint demo on his laptop. “Where are the jellyfish? Well, where is their food? Where are the chlorophyll hot spots? Where are the plankton? That’s where the leatherbacks have to go. Can they go there? This is cold water. Can they move into it without blowing their energy budget?” Zero in on the natural leatherback flight paths, Jones says, and you can make marine protected areas en route.
“We believe you’ll find turtles right there.” He points to a spot in the South Pacific. “But look who’s coming in: Hawaii longline fisheries, and American Samoa longline fisheries here. When are the animals moving through? During those periods we should have fishing restrictions.”
Of those original 20 hatchlings scooped off the Caribbean beach, Jones managed to keep 10 alive for a year and four alive for almost three years. The four achieved modest fame. They grew from hatchlings the size of poker chips to small juveniles the size of garbage-can lids, specimens virtually never before seen. Then came last November’s freak snowstorm that knocked out power to the campus. “Our tanks dropped down to 10 degrees Celsius, and once we got the generator going we had to heat one tank at a time,” Jones says. “The turtles survived, but it was hard on them. They went off feeding. A bacterium took hold and moved into the bloodstream. We lost them in December.”
The final leatherback—somewhat dispassionately named DC-10—died a few months ago after Jones allowed researchers from several universities to come to UBC for a collaborative study on how leatherbacks see and hear underwater, the better to learn how to put alarms on fishing nets that will deter turtles from the bait. “I knew there was a risk, but it was important research,” Jones says. DC-10 was put under a general anaesthetic. It never woke up.
But three years of close observation yielded a bagful of invaluable data. Jones will schlep it all to Madison, Wisconsin, where he begins a postdoc fellowship in the spring building models to nail down leatherback distributions. It took 10 years to figure out what questions he needed to ask. But now the answers seem obvious: change commercial fishing practices here and here and here; fix those changes in legislation with real teeth. The hard part will be getting the international community to listen. Will others, indeed, have any interest in protecting a strange, autistic fugitive, moving around somewhere out there with precious microfilm under its hat?