Since turtles cannot talk: what beak movement sensors can tell us about the feeding ecology of neritic loggerhead turtles, Caretta caretta
Understanding the role that consumers play in an ecosystem requires knowledge about food selection and intake rates. However, such basic data are often difficult to obtain, particularly for marine animals that are not easy to observe. To overcome this problem, a beak movement sensor was employed on a free-ranging loggerhead turtle in a neritic foraging habitat at the Domitian littoral (SW Italy). In combination with gastrointestinal content analysis from six turtles found dead in the same area we sought to identify which beak movement patterns were associated with which prey type, and to quantify the ingestion of the various prey types. Brachyuran crabs (100% occurrence), in particular Liocarcinus vernalis, and small molluscs (66% occurrence) were found most frequently in the stomach and intestine of the turtles. Beak movements revealed average ingestion rates of (mean ± SE) 0.27 ± 0.13 food items per minute and that feeding occurred predominantly during dives >4 m and during early morning and evening. Interestingly, the time spent feeding amounted to only 2.2% of the total observation time, whereas feeding-associated dives added up to just above 10% of the total time. We thus established that loggerhead turtles in this area are specialised on brachyuran crabs, on which they prey with high success during the short time dedicated to foraging. This information strengthens our knowledge about turtle–prey and turtle–habitat interactions, which are essential data to delineate the role that turtles play in this and similar marine ecosystems. Moreover, since the same area is also intensively used by the regional bottom trawl fishery, our results have important conservation implications, because they clearly show the time of day and water depths for which fishing activity should be regulated to reduce the number of turtles that are currently being incidentally caught in this area.