Sea Turtle Island
The 58,000-gallon tank in Sea Turtle Island is home to our loggerhead sea turtle and many other fish friends. The multi-leveled exhibit allows visitors to enjoy marine life from above and below; adventurous visitors can even go into an underwater observation station where they can come face-to-face with Sea Turtle Island’s inhabitants, such as a fish with a “beak,” and the hammerhead shark’s smallest cousin.
THE LOGGERHEAD SEA TURTLE
There are seven species of sea turtles, six of which can be found in the United States. The Oklahoma Aquarium houses the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), which is the species that most commonly nests in the United States. Like all species of sea turtles, loggerheads are essential to their ecosystems. Their eating habits promote biodiversity and nutrient enrichment, and they form symbiotic relationships (mutually beneficial relationships) with shrimp and fish. Loggerheads are equipped with large, powerful jaws that enable them to eat hard-shelled crabs, conch, and whelks; the breakdown of these shells is what creates nutrients for other animals.
All reptiles must breathe air to survive and sea turtles are no exception, even though they live in the ocean. Though sea turtles must come to the surface for air, they have evolved to hold their breath for approximately four to seven hours at a time. This allows them to forage and sleep underwater. Aside from coming up for air, male loggerheads never swim out of the water and females only swim ashore to nest.
Female sea turtles often travel hundreds or thousands of miles, and sometimes even across entire oceans, to return to their natal beach (the beach where they were born) to lay their eggs. Sea turtles lay about 100 eggs at one time because their young are extremely vulnerable to predators. In fact, it is estimated that only one in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood due to numerous threats from predators and their environment. Though 25 years sounds old for an animal, sea turtles can live to be well over 100 years old!
Journey to Jenks: The Life Story of Our Loggerheads
The Oklahoma Aquarium is proud to be home to two loggerheads born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on November 4, 1994. Because their eggs were laid so late in the year, outside temperatures were too cold for optimal survival so the Virginia Marine Science Museum sheltered them from the cold. Once the loggerheads hatched and grew large enough to release, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noticed the sea turtles were accustomed to human care, and that they would be better suited in a safe place that could properly care for them.
The fast growing turtles needed a larger tank than what they had at the Virginia Marine Science Museum, so they made the road trip from Virginia in 2001. At the time they weighed about 200 pounds; now they have both grown to weigh over 300 pounds and may even approach 400 pounds in the future. While both live happily in Jenks, only one lives at Sea Turtle Island at a time because mature loggerheads can act territorial. Both males love people and pose for pictures so be sure to pay them a visit!
Conservation and Threats to Sea Turtle Populations
All seven species of sea turtles are endangered or threatened (close to endangered). This is largely due to human activity and waste. Plastic waste, especially single-use plastics, pose a considerable threat to sea turtles. Sea turtles can, and frequently do, ingest trash like plastic bags, straws, and fishing lines. While commercial fisheries and conservation institutions have taken many steps to protect sea turtles, there’s a lot you can do, too! Click here to learn how to “Think Blue to Go Green.”
- They are called “loggerheads” because their massive heads look like logs floating in the water when they come to the surface for air.
- Sea turtles cannot pull their heads into their shell like other turtles.
- Loggerheads, leatherbacks, and green sea turtles all love to eat jellyfish. But how do they enjoy a stinging snack? Their mouths and throats are lined with papillae, or pointy projections that protect them from jellyfish venom. The papillae are covered in keratin, which is the same protein found in human hair and nails.
- The sex of a sea turtle is determined by the temperature of the eggs. When the eggs are incubated below 81.86°F then all the eggs will be male, and when they are incubated above 87.8°F then they will be female. At intermediate temperatures, the eggs in the nest will hatch with a mix of males and females.
- Scientists do not know exactly how sea turtles navigate so far to get back to their natal beaches for nesting. Some widely supported theories are: (1) sea turtles can detect and follow the Earth’s magnetic field; (2) sea turtles imprint, or learn, unique characteristics of their natal beach, such as sounds, smells, magnetic fields, and/or ocean currents; and (3) younger sea turtles follow older, more experienced sea turtles.
Fish Friends of Sea Turtle Island
All sharks are considered chondrichthians (con-drick-thee-ans), or cartilaginous fish, meaning they have no bones. Instead their skeleton is made up of cartilage, which is the tough, flexible tissue that makes up our own ears and the tips of our noses. Some of the boneless wonders residing in Sea Turtle Island include the bonnethead shark (Sphyrna tiburo) and the leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata). The bonnethead, also known as the shovelhead shark, is related to the great hammerhead. Bonnetheads are found in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico spanning across the entire east coast of the United States and from southern California to the coast of Ecuador. Leopard sharks on the other hand, are only found in the Eastern Pacific, from Oregon to the Gulf of California in Mexico.
- The bonnethead is the smallest species of hammerhead. While the great hammerhead can grow up to 20 feet long, the bonnethead usually only grows to four feet long.
- Leopard shark births are ovoviviparous, meaning they give live births. While most fish lay eggs that hatch outside the body, ovoviviparous animals hatch their eggs internally so the pups are born breathing.
Osteichthians (Bony Fish)
Aside from cartilaginous fish, Sea Turtle Island is home to a wide variety of bony fish, which are known as osteichthians. This group encompasses any fish with a skeleton made of bone (rather than cartilage), so it is an extremely diverse group of fish. All the bony fish found in Sea Turtle Island would ordinarily cohabitate with loggerheads. Many of these fish have remarkable adaptations and serve important functions in their ecosystem.
One of the most notable bony fish in this exhibit is our porcupine puffer (Diodon hystrix). Porcupinefish are found in tropical reefs all over the world. They can grow up to three feet long, but average around 16 inches long. They have a large, strong jaw with fused teeth that enable them to eat hard-shelled animals such as crabs, urchins, and clams. In the wild, porcupine puffers defend themselves by filling up with water and inflating to three times their size, shape-shifting into a giant spiny balloon that bamboozles potential predators.
- Bony Fish of Sea Turtle Island Include:
- Atlantic spadefish
- Beaugregory damselfish
- Bermuda chub
- Black durgeon
- Blackbar soldierfish
- Blue chromis
- Bluestriped grunt, French grunt, and smallmouth grunt
- Blue tang and ocean surgeon tang
- Doctor fish
- Dusky squirrelfish and longspine squirrelfish
- French angelfish and grey angelfish
- Queen angelfish
- Queen triggerfish
- Rainbow parrotfish
- Rooster hogfish and Spanish hogfish
- Sergeant major
- Yellowtail snapper
- Parrotfish have some of the strongest teeth in the world! Their teeth are fused to form a parrot-like “beak”. What they do with those teeth is very important for beach enthusiasts: parrotfish eat corals and algae and digest them to produce a thousand pounds of poop, or as most of us call it, SAND, every year! That’s right—white sandy beaches are actually made up of parrotfish poop.
- Blue tangs and loggerheads are great friends, or as scientists would say, blue tangs and loggerheads form a symbiotic relationship. The loggerhead provides food for the blue tang, which eats the algae from its shell; in return, the loggerhead gets a clean shell which allows him to swim faster.
Visitors are welcome to watch our biology staff feed the fish of Sea Turtle Island daily at 3:30 p.m.
Educational components highlight the endangered status of sea turtles, their important role in the wild, and how our actions can impact sea turtles and their ocean habitat.
For the safety of our sea turtles, no food or drinks are allowed in Sea Turtle Island. Strollers and wagons must be parked outside of the exhibit during high volume crowds.
Thank you to all the donors who made Sea Turtle Island possible:
- AEP Foundation - Public Service Company of Oklahoma
- The Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation
- Bill Knight Automotive
- The Chapman Foundations
- The Commonwealth Foundation
- Cuesta Foundation
- E.L. And Thelma Gaylord Foundation
- Founders of Doctors’ Hospital Foundation
- Grace and Franklin Bernsen Foundation
- Hardesty Family Foundation, Inc.
- Herman Kaiser Foundation
- Los Cabos and Waterfront Grill
- Mervin Bovaird Foundation
- ONEOK Foundation
- The Oxley Foundation
- Ruth K. Nelson
- Special thanks to Vision 2025
- The Williams Foundation
Written by Alyssa Rodriguez, February 2019.