Development and application of a multistate model to the northern subpopulation of loggerhead sea turtles

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Virginia Tech

Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and are protected both on nesting beaches and in United States waters. Loggerhead sea turtles are long-lived species and are most easily studied on the beaches during the nesting season. Bald Head Island, North Carolina has one of the highest density nesting beaches of loggerhead sea turtles in the turtle's northern range on the East Coast of the United States. Key life history parameters were estimated and applied to a population model using 16 years of data from a mark-recapture study on the loggerhead sea turtle nesting population on Bald Head Island, North Carolina.

The beach survey conducted on the island only allowed for the capture of adult female sea turtles during the breeding state even though females may spend multiple years in the unobservable non-breeding state. The majority of females captured over the last 16 years have never been recaptured at the original capture site. These transients in the data coupled with unobservable states violate the assumption of equal catchability in the available single state mark-recapture models. Therefore, a multistate mark- recapture model originally developed for leatherback sea turtles was applied to the Bald Head Island loggerhead population. Multistate modeling provides a new technique to estimate sea turtle demographic parameters in which all model assumptions can be met. The multistate model outputs female survival rates, capture probability, and transition probabilities between breeding and non-breeding states. A correction factor for trap-dependence and transients was included given that both factors tested significant in the global model goodness-of-fit tests.

The estimates of annual adult survival rate and breeding transitions were then used to project population size for the northern subpopulation. For the first time, estimation error around estimates of benthic juvenile and adult survival rates was included in a loggerhead sea turtle model. I explored the effects of estimation error, three levels of clutch frequency, and larger TED openings on population growth rate and on the probability of reaching a nesting recovery threshold. The nesting recovery threshold was based upon recovery criteria from the Federal Recovery Plan and set as the probability of reaching 12,800 nests/season in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia within a 50 year time period. The results of this study provide important information to guide future management and research.

population dynamics, multistate model, loggerhead sea turtle