Loggerhead Turtle photo by Tessa MazorIt's quite a challenge developing a conservation plan for a threatened migratory animal like the loggerhead sea turtle. Their movements may be uncertain and variable, span vast distances, cross international borders and traverse land and sea habitats. The information available to conservation managers to create their plans is often thin, patchy and comes from various sources. Filling in the gaps in that information can be costly and time consuming. And, of course, for a threatened species delays in action can be costly. So, the question is: what degree of spatial information provides sufficient results for directing management actions?

Dr Tessa Mazor and colleagues from CEED set out to answer this question. They developed and evaluated an approach that incorporates habitat and movement information to advance the conservation of migratory species. And they tested their approach by using information on loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in the Mediterranean.

"We developed conservation plans for the loggerhead turtles using four approaches with increasing amounts of information and then compared the results," explains Tessa Mazor. "These approaches involved (1) maps of the turtle's broad distribution, (2) maps showing multiple habitat types used by the turtles (feeding, nesting and inter-nesting habitats), (3) movement information based on mark–recapture studies (in which turtles were caught, tagged and later re caught) and (4) migration tracks derived from satellite-tracked turtles."

The analysis revealed that spatial priorities for sea turtle conservation are very sensitive to the type of information being used.
"Setting conservation targets for migration tracks altered the location of conservation priorities," says Mazor. "This indicates that conservation plans designed without such data would miss important sea turtle habitat. We proposed that future telemetry studies tailor their efforts towards conservation prioritization needs, meaning that spatially dispersed samples rather than just large numbers should be obtained."

Their work highlights how valuable information from telemetry research (satellite tracking) can be to the conservation of migratory species.

"Telemetry studies provide a wealth of connectivity information for migratory species," says Mazor. "Unfortunately, this information is not often applied to conservation planning. Our hope is that this analysis will encourage telemetry studies in the future aimed at improving the management of threatened migratory species."

When there is only a short window of time to act for threatened species it is critical that decision makers invest and act in those areas that will generate the best conservation outcomes.

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Reference: Mazor, T., Beger, M., McGowan, J., Possingham, H. P. and Kark, S. (2016). The value of migration information for conservation prioritization of sea turtles in the Mediterranean. Global Ecology and Biogeography.