Wildlife & Biodiversity

Female turtle returns to Maldivian atoll to lay eggs, finds runway instead

The turtle laid her eggs on the runway of Maafaru airport itself, on Noonu Atoll

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 11 April 2019
The female green sea turtle at Maafaru Airport runway with her eggs. Photo: @ParveenKaswan/Twitter
The female green sea turtle at Maafaru Airport runway with her eggs. Photo: @ParveenKaswan/Twitter The female green sea turtle at Maafaru Airport runway with her eggs. Photo: @ParveenKaswan/Twitter

In a heart-breaking incident, a green sea turtle that had come to a Maldivian atoll to lay its eggs, found the newly-constructed runway of a brand new airport instead, and ended up laying her eggs on the tarmac.

The incident happened on April 9, 2019, at the Maafaru Airport on the Noonu Atoll in the Maldives. Maafaru Airport was built in 2018, with aid from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. It has a 2,200 m (7,200 ft) runway.

Noonu Atoll is located approximately 185 kilometres (km) from Male, the capital of the Maldives, which is an archipelago located west of Sri Lanka, in the vast Indian Ocean. The Maldives is a neighbour of India and is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC.

Science tells us that turtles visit the same beach every year to lay their eggs. According to reports in the Maldivian media, the female turtle was looking for a safe nesting site when it landed on the atoll on April 9.

“All islands in the Maldives, including Noonu/Maafaru, are excellent nesting sites for turtles,” a Maldivian citizen told Down To Earth (DTE) on the condition of anonymity.

In fact, just 30 km from Maafuru, is located the Turtle Preservation Sanctuary on the nearby island of Naifaru. Since the past three years, Naifaru has been hosting an annual ‘Turtle Fest’ to raise awareness about the conservation of marine turtles.

“Maldivians take pride in their attempts to conserve marine life,” said the local who spoke to DTE. When asked as to why the Maafaru Airport had been constructed if this was the case, he said, “Ask that to the politicians.”

 There may be some truth in that. The residents of Maafaru were not happy about the construction of the airport as is evidenced by this tweet:

And while the turtle mother who laid her eggs is in good health, the question remains as to what is the scientific reason behind turtles returning to the same beach annually to lay eggs?

“Studies have indicated three main factors to be behind this,” Basudeb Tripathy, scientist at the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kolkata told DTE. “One is a phenomenon termed natal homing. Here, hatchlings that are born on a specific beach get the characteristics of that spot imprinted on their brain. This is what then attracts them every year,” he explained.

The other reason is pheromones, said Tripathy. These hormones, which are produced among turtles at the time of their birth, also imprint the beach where they are born onto their brains.

Yet another reason is sea currents. “Sea currents are like marine highways on which turtles traverse the vast oceans. Since these are fixed, the turtles are able to use them to come back to the same beach every year,” said Tripathy.

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