The reason, apparently, is that they pause frequently in crawling if they are doing it for a long time, unlike the uninterrupted sprint they make when headed straight to the water. So disoriented turtles are not worn out.
Dr. Milton answered questions in a telephone interview about the research. Our interview, below, has been edited for clarity and length.
Q. This required a lot of late night work. Is that all on the part of your graduate students?
A: I’m always up for the first few nights because I have to train the graduate students. After that it was all on them, and they had a few volunteer undergraduate students to help as well. We actually had planned to have the turtles do an entire kilometer, but it just took so long. It turned out that the turtle could go that distance, but the graduate student couldn’t hang in there that long.
The turtles are snatched up right away and go to the lab where they’re on a treadmill. Do they get a rest before you release them?
They were held at a nearby nature center that we work with. They take them out, along with other hatchlings that have been mis-oriented that people bring to the nature center. Actually, they get a ride out on a boat when some of the local dive masters volunteer, and they take them out all at once and basically drop them off in the Gulf Stream.
How did you make such a small treadmill?
It’s a belt sander. We put a power coupling on it so that we could slow it down. Obviously, we don’t really want to be sanding the turtles. The crawling surface is actually hair scrunchies, so it would be soft and give them some traction.
It was tough on the graduate students, because they had to watch them the entire time. When the turtles were crawling, we’d have the treadmill on, but as soon as they stopped, you had to turn the treadmill off. And then as soon as they started crawling, you had to turn it on again. So it was very labor intensive to do the experiment.
What do the hatchlings do when they get to the Gulf Stream?
They settle into the weed lines, that’s what they’re aiming for. They can eat all the amphipods and things that are hanging out in the sargassum, and they just live there for the next several years.
Do your results mean we don’t have to worry about human lights?
They end up spending a lot longer on the beach than they otherwise would, both because they’re disoriented and because they’re stopping all the time. That makes them very vulnerable to predators.
There’s a lot of things out on the beach that like to eat baby sea turtles. Night birds, raccoons, foxes. And then also, they can end up being still on the beach in the morning when the sun comes up, which means they pretty much would just overheat and die.
There are some people who don’t think that turning off the lights, really, is going to do any good. But I can say from being out on the beach doing the study, it’s very clear that we would have one house that had a porch light on in the back or something like that, and the turtle would head straight for it.
It made me want to leave a note on their door: “Hi, you are personally responsible for the disorientation of 60 turtles last night.” So turning off the lights in the condominiums and in the houses really does make a difference.
The sky glow, though, is different. There’s not as much we can do about that, except basically at a societal level, just because there’s all the streetlights and it casts a glow in the sky. Anyone who lives in a big city can see that.