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ScienceShot: Sea Turtles Smell Nearby Shores

1 November 2013 12:45 pm
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ScienceShot: Sea Turtles Smell Nearby Shores

Courtney Endres

A loggerhead sea turtle’s nose knows land. Sea turtles can migrate across the ocean and back, but while Earth’s magnetic field plays a role in their navigation, researchers have wondered what other tools turtles use to find safe harbor, particularly at smaller scales. Loggerheads’ (Caretta caretta, pictured) olfactory systems can sense airborne odors, including food—could they sniff out nearby shores as well? To find out, researchers piped the scent of either distilled water or mud from North Carolina’s Sage Bay into the air above a juvenile loggerhead at swim in an arena. Researchers report in this month’s issue of Marine Biology that when the scent of mud was in the air, the 10 turtles spent more time swimming with their heads above the water’s surface, compared with when distilled water was the only perfume. (An additional series of tests checked turtles’ responses to fragrances including jasmine, lemon, and cinnamon against the mud—mud was still what drew turtles to the surface, suggesting that they weren’t merely responding to any new scent.) Researchers say these turtles’ ability to smell land, shown for the first time in this study, could help the reptiles find the shore, draw them to food along the shoreline, or both.

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