When Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Atlantic coast in late August, sea turtle nests took a hit. In Georgia, about 20% of nests were still in the ground, meaning they were covered by sand and hidden from view when the hurricane hit, says the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division.
About three-quarters of the rest of the nests were either destroyed or waterlogged, so "poor hatching success is expected." There are about 80 nests still incubating on Georgia's coast.
Despite the storm's destruction, there's still plenty of good news for sea turtles. Since April, 3,928 loggerhead nests were laid, which is the most ever recorded since surveys started in 1989. The DNR estimates that 240,000 hatchlings had already emerged from their nests before Dorian struck.
Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia DNR, tells MNN the hatching success rate this season was 65% and dropped a little bit to 62% after the hurricane barreled through.
More nests were lost to predators like raccoons, feral hogs and coyotes than were destroyed by storms, according to SeaTurtle.org, which tracks sea turtle activity. Tides and storms were responsible for about one-third of all nest losses.
This was the same pattern seen up and down the Atlantic coast because of the storm.
"Hurricane Dorian obliterated hundreds of sea-turtle nests at National Wildlife Refuges as it clawed north along the Atlantic coast earlier this month," wrote Mark Davis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"But it could have been much worse. The storm, wildlife refuge staff noted, had dissipated as it neared the fragile, sandy shores where turtles lay eggs. It obliterated some nests, but left others intact. In addition, some hatchlings had emerged from their shells and made it to the surf before the storm bowled past. Others have yet to hatch."
But, as MNN's Russell McLendon points out, sea turtles are survivors. "They've been here since the early days of dinosaurs, and their babies were scampering down beaches long before humans came along."
There's been an upward trend in nesting numbers for this threatened species for more than the past decade with what appears to be a recovery period for loggerheads in Georgia.
One reproductive strategy they use also helps them weather storms. Loggerhead females nest only every two to three years, but they lay as many as six clutches throughout that nesting season. That helps increase the odds that their hatchlings survive.
"The important thing to remember is that sea turtles evolved nesting on dynamic beaches like this and their reproductive strategy takes hurricanes into account," Dodd says.
"We don’t know how long they live but it could be 40 to 60 years; you have to produce enough eggs or hatchlings to replace yourself. If they lose only one nest every few years because of a hurricane, it's a relatively small effect on individual turtles."
Dodd says this year's storms weren't unusual for the turtles.
"It’s not an uncommon scenario for turtles," Dodd says. "We don’t panic. We know they’ve evolved to deal with this kind of thing."