Baby sea turtles run on tiny treadmills for science

It turns out sea turtle hatchlings have much more determination than expected.

When a hatchling begins its first trek out of a nest, experts believe it is attracted to the brightest horizon and the ocean's surf. But, there are times when they can be distracted.

Artificial lights from nearby buildings and streets can lure hatchlings away from an ocean and toward land. Baby sea turtles have about a 50 percent chance of making it to their destination if in an urban environment. Those who do make it to the water use massive amounts of energy, experts say.

This unfortunate trend prompted a study conducted by Florida Atlantic University researchers to evaluate the energy used by disoriented hatchlings. About 150 hatchlings were collected just as they emerged from 27 loggerhead turtle and 18 green turtle nests on beaches in Palm Beach County.

Tiny treadmills with simulated lighting were used to measure their stamina, in which the hatchlings did follow the light. After, they swam in a small tank using a specially-designed swimsuit that measured the hatchlings' breathing rates, stroke rates and oxygen consumption.

It turns out they are "crawling machines."

"We were completely surprised by the results of this study," said Dr. Sarah Milton, an associate professor of biological sciences at FAU. "We were expecting that the hatchlings would be really tired from the extended crawling and that they would not be able to swim well. It turned out not to be the case … they crawl and rest, crawl and rest and that's why they weren't too tired to swim."

Milton said this is good news, but at the same time, it means the disoriented hatchlings have the energy to spend more time on the beach, increasing their chances of being eaten or harmed in other ways.

"One of the goals of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is to reduce hatchling disorientation and our study provides the scientific basis to support lighting ordinances during turtle hatching season," said Milton. "We all need to do our part in helping to conserve these incredible animals."