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International News: Scientific research finds hicatees move in unison; implications for conservation of endangered species

Posted: Wednesday, October 4, 2023. 7:24 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: Research published in September in the journal Animal Behaviour finds that the Central American river turtle, known locally as ‘hicatee,’ moves in groups for purposes of companionship as well as self-protection from predators such as crocodiles, reports National Geographic Magazine.

It is believed the research will help conservationists protect the critically endangered species, which has declined to estimated numbers of ten thousand across Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala as poachers crave their meat and eggs as a delicacy on the black market. One researcher not connected with the study suggested that at current rates of capture the hicatee could go extinct in another thirty years. Examples include a further ban on the use of gill nets that capture many turtles at once.

Researchers Don McKnight and Jaren Serano admit they stumbled upon the finding almost by accident one morning at the crack of dawn in 2020 while conducting other research.

In movements McKnight compared to a pod of whales, a hydrophone in the waters of a local river detected movements via sonic transmitters attached to their shells, confirming they were no less than three feet apart, confounding experts who previously thought the animals were solitary.

To find out if the turtles were really socializing, the team then found a section of river that had none of the known variables that might attract turtles, such as logs, rocks, or vegetation. By outfitting sonic transmitters to the shells of 19 juveniles of both sexes, the team could also rule out mating behavior.

The scientists then tracked the tagged turtles from a canoe daily for a few months, going up and down the river and measuring clusters of two or more turtles, which revealed distances between individuals.

Once the data was in, McKnight, Serano, and colleagues ran simulations to determine if the groupings and travel habits of the turtles were random or evidence of sociality. The randomized model showed the distances between turtles were always larger than what they found in the wild.

That means that real-life turtles were not moving at random — they were moving together in herds on purpose, in a variety of group sizes.


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