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Models to Evaluate Headstarting as a Management Tool for Long-Lived Turtles

Selina S. Heppell, Larry B. Crowder and Deborah T. Crouse
Ecological Applications
Vol. 6, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 556-565
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Ecological Society of America
DOI: 10.2307/2269391
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2269391
Page Count: 10
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Models to Evaluate Headstarting as a Management Tool for Long-Lived Turtles
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Abstract

Most turtle species suffer highly mortality in their first year, have a long juvenile period, and can live for decades once they reach adulthood. Conservationists have implemented a number of recovery plans for threatened turtle populations, including experimental "headstart" programs. Headstarting involves the captive rearing of hatchlings from eggs collected in the wild. The hatchlings are held for several months to help them avoid high mortality in their first year. It is hoped that these turtles survive and grow like wild turtles after release. The purpose of our study was to evaluate headstarting as a management tool for threatened turtle populations. We critically examined the population-level effects of headstarting with a series of deterministic matrix models for yellow mud turtles (Kinosternon flavescens), a "non-threatened," well-studied species, endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys kempi). We show that management efforts focused exclusively on improving survival in the first year of life are unlikely to be effective for long-lived species such as turtles. Population projections for both turtles predict that head-starting can augment increasing populations when adult survival is returned to or maintained at high levels, provided that headstarted juveniles are as vigorous as wild turtles. However, when subadult and adult survival is reduced, headstarting cannot compensate for losses in later stages. Proportional sensitivity (elasticity) analyses of stage-based matrix models indicated that annual survival rates for subadult and adult turtles are most critical; small decreases in the survival of older turtles can quickly overcome any potential benefits of headstarting. In general, the biological benefits of headstarting programs may be overestimated for turtles, and a careful examination of stage-specific mortality sources, demography, and life history can guide us toward more effective management strategies.

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