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Baby sea turtles prove their stamina on tiny treadmills

Little swimsuits and mini treadmills teach scientists more about the impressive physical prowess of baby sea turtle hatchlings. Yes, the tykes are adorable.

Scientists didn't need to race a tortoise against a hare to discover that dogged determination can win the day if you're a sea turtle hatchling. But they did need the help of some itsy-bitsy treadmills and swimsuits. 

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University studied the stamina of sea-turtle hatchlings to learn more about how the babies deal with the distractions and detours of urban environments. The young turtles emerge from nests on the beach and innately head toward the bright horizon of the ocean water, but lights from buildings and streets can confuse them, sending them on the wrong path and exposing them to the dangers of predators and vehicles.

This sea turtle hatchling wears a special swimsuit that helps researchers measure its swimming stamina.

Jay Paredes

A trip that should take just a few brief minutes can turn into an epic journey lasting hours. "Baby sea turtles have about a 50 percent chance of getting to their destination in urban settings where there is this disorientation or misorientation from artificial lighting," the university notes in a statement.

Researchers collected 150 loggerhead and green turtle hatchlings from beaches in Florida's Palm Beach County. They set the babies on mini treadmills with lighting that would spur them on.

After running the treadmill, the turtles donned special swimsuits and took a dip in a tank to see how well they could swim after their efforts. The swimsuits helped the scientists measure their breathing and flipper-paddling rates. The researchers released the hatchlings into the ocean after the testing.

The study found disoriented hatchlings spend time resting up during their crawls.

Lead author Sarah Milton, a biology professor at FAU, was surprised by the results of the study, which appear in the Journal of Experimental Biology. "We were expecting that the hatchlings would be really tired from the extended crawling and that they would not be able to swim well," she says. "It turned out not to be the case and that they are in fact crawling machines." 

Despite the turtles' ability to stay on the move, more time spent on land means more potential dangers. Milton says the study backs up the use of lighting ordinances intended to reduce disorientation during turtle-hatching season. 

Sea turtles have worn swimsuits in pursuit of science before. A 2015 study dressed hatchlings in suits to help collect their droppings for a look at their dietary habits. At least the FAU study didn't have to deal with the less-than-cute poop part of the equation.

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