Hitchhikers reveal cryptic host behavior: New insights from the association between Planes major and sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean

Joseph B. Pfaller, Joanna Alfaro-Shigueto, George H. Balazs, Takashi Ishihara, Kerry Kopitsky, Jeffrey C. Mangel, S. Hoyt Peckham, Alan B. Bolten, Karen A. Bjorndal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations

Abstract

Studies that incorporate information from habitat-specific ecological interactions (e.g., epibiotic associations) can reveal valuable insights into the cryptic habitat-use patterns and behavior of marine vertebrates. Sea turtles, like other large, highly mobile marine vertebrates, are inherently difficult to study, and such information can inform the implementation of conservation measures. The presence of epipelagic epibionts, such as the flotsam crab Planes major, on sea turtles strongly suggests that neritic turtles have recently occupied epipelagic habitats (upper 200 m in areas with >200 m depth) and that epipelagic turtles spend time at or near the surface. We quantified the effects of turtle species, turtle size, and habitat (neritic or epipelagic) on the frequency of epibiosis (F 0) by P. major on sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean. In neritic habitats, we found that loggerhead (F 0 = 27.6 %) and olive ridley turtles (F 0 = 26.2 %) host crabs frequently across a wide range of body sizes, and green turtles almost never host crabs (F 0 = 0.7 %). These results suggest that loggerheads and olive ridleys display variable/flexible epipelagic-neritic transitions, while green turtles tend to transition unidirectionally at small body sizes. In epipelagic habitats, we found that loggerheads host crabs (F 0 = 92.9 %) more frequently than olive ridleys (F 0 = 50 %) and green turtles (F 0 = 38.5 %). These results suggest that epipelagic loggerheads tend to spend more time at or near the surface than epipelagic olive ridleys and green turtles. Results of this study reveal new insights into habitat-use patterns and behavior of sea turtles and display how epibiont data can supplement data from more advanced technologies to gain a better understanding of the ecology of marine vertebrates during cryptic life stages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2167-2178
Number of pages12
JournalMarine Biology
Volume161
Issue number9
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 2014

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