Sea Turtle Lifecyle
Explore our interactive diagram of sea turtles’ lifecycles and learn all about the life of a turtle. Click through the images to see the different phases in a sea turtle’s lifecycle — hover over each image for a detailed description.
Sea Turtle Lifecycle in Detail
The following text describes the various stages in sea turtles lifecycles and corresponds to the lifecycle diagram above.
A. NESTING BEACHES: ADULT FEMALE
During nesting season, females come ashore to lay eggs within a few weeks of mating.
After making their way above the high-tide line, they use their front flippers to dig a large depression called a “body pit,” using such force that they send sand flying through the air.
Females then use their back flippers to dig a smaller hole at the far end of the body pit called an “egg chamber,” into which they deposit between 50-200 soft-shelled eggs, depending on the species. After refilling and covering their nests with sand, they return to sea.
B. ADULT FEMALES RETURN TO FEEDING AREAS AFTER NESTING SEASON
Depending on the distance, this migration may take several months.
Females must return to feeding areas – generally nearshore (neritic) areas – after each nesting season to replenish her energy stores for the next reproductive season. This period typically takes more than a year, and in many cases, several years. Other adults (females and males) and large juveniles also feed in these areas.
C. HATCHLINGS TO OCEAN AND EARLY YEARS IN OPEN OCEAN HABITAT
When fully developed, hatchlings break through their eggshell and slowly dig their way to the surface, typically en masse. This process can take a few days.
Hatchlings generally wait until night to head for the ocean, when they can use the cover of darkness to avoid detection by many predators on the beach and in the water.
After reaching the water, hatchlings enter into a multi-day "swimming frenzy," during which they swim almost continuously, fueled only by leftover egg yolk, to reach deeper water away from shore.
Little turtles are transported by strong ocean currents to open-ocean (oceanic) habitats, where they live in flotsam, such as Sargassum mats (brown algae), and have an omnivorous diet. This oceanic stage can last from a few years to decades.
Leatherbacks are the only species that spend the majority of their life in this oceanic environment; flatbacks are the only species that lack this open ocean stage entirely.
D. DEVELOPMENTAL MIGRATIONS TO NERITIC FEEDING AREAS
After this oceanic period, the juvenile turtles move into highly productive neritic (near shore) feeding areas to finish growing, a process that can take as little as a few years and as long as a few decades.
While these foraging grounds tend to offer a greater abundance and variety of food than the open ocean, they also tend to host more predators. Thus, young turtles wait to enter these areas until they have attained a larger body size, which helps them avoid being eaten.
Adult turtles also occupy neritic feeding areas. Adult turtles remain in these areas until they have accumulated sufficient energy reserves to migrate to breeding areas for reproduction. This period typically takes more than a year, and in many cases, several years.
E. MIGRATION OF ADULTS TO NATAL BEACHES FOR MATING
After acquiring sufficient resources, adult males and females migrate to breeding areas to mate and, in the case of females, to nest.
The distance between feeding and breeding areas can be hundreds, to tens of thousands, of kilometers.
Each nesting season, most females return to nest at the same beach, or group of beaches, from which they themselves emerged as hatchlings. The return migration by an adult turtle to the beach of its birth is called natal homing.
F. MATING IN COASTAL AREAS NEAR NESTING BEACHES:
Although a female typically only need mate with one male to obtain enough sperm to fertilize all of her eggs in a season, multiple paternity is common in sea turtles. This is most likely due to the fact that male sea turtles generally attempt to mate with as many females as possible.
Males are quite aggressive during the mating season, both with other males and with females.
G. ADULT MALES RETURN TO FEEDING AREAS
Like females, male turtles show natal homing, but visit broader areas and more sites than females do. Males will try to mate with as many females as they can during a season. Once males have mated and are unsuccessful in finding more mates, they return to their feeding areas.
H. INTERNESTING HABITATS
Females stay near their nesting beach during the nesting season, which can last one to two months.
Depending on the species, female turtles lay between two and seven clutches (a group of eggs deposited during one egg-laying event), in a season – one clutch every 10 to 15 days.
Olive ridley and Kemp’s ridley turtles are the exceptions to this pattern when they nest in arribadas, or synchronized mass nesting events, that occur over a three to seven-day period once a month.