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Scientists shocked to learn truth about sea turtles during their ‘lost years’

Young sea turtle have “lost years” when they disappear into the open ocean – but don’t think they’re just floating around when they go off our radar.

Turtles of just 1 year of age head for the open ocean and disappear for a decade, but scientists have recently been able to attach solar-powered tracking devices to 44 wild turtles as they head out to sea, and the findings, which were published in Current Biology, had some surprises, according to a Christian Science Monitor report.

Scientists had guessed that young sea turtles just drifted along in the sea, not doing much. But Katherine Mansfield, who is the study’s lead author and the head of the research group at the University of Central Florida, wanted to find out for sure by tracking sea turtles between the ages of six months and two years of age.

These were not easy turtles to find, and the team would often go 60 miles without finding a turtle, but finally Mansfield and the study’s co-author, Nathan Putman, were able to get a big enough sample size, tagging 20 Kemp’s ridley turtles as well as 24 green turtles.

When found, each turtle was tagged with a tracking device and released near a floating buoy, which were also tagged and tracked.

The data that came back was surprising: the turtles were actively swimming through the ocean at a slow but constant rate. The yearlings swam away from the buoys, with the team finding that the green turtles were intent on going east, where as the Kemp’s ridley turtles were headed north.

The team would like to track even younger turtles to find out where they go when they first head out to sea — which would also make them easier to find — but the tracking devices are still too big for the tiny creatures. That means that while the study is eye-opening, there is still much work to be done to find out more about these turtles’ habits.

However, the surprising findings could have big implications for understanding sea turtles, both how they survive and what their typical behavior is, which could lead to new ways to protect them.