Coastal waters of Australia and Papua New Guinea
Seagrass beds and other coastal habitats
Order Chelonii (turtles and tortoises), Family Cheloniidae (hard shelled sea turtles)
The flatback turtle is named for the relative flatness of its shell, one of the characteristics that distinguish it from the other sea turtles around the world. Most sea turtles migrate extremely long distances, travelling across entire ocean basins multiple times throughout their lives. The flatback turtle, however, has a much smaller range, is the only sea turtle that does not visit the Americas, and is restricted to the coastal waters of Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Though this species is known to visit the waters of Papua New Guinea to feed, it nests only on beaches in Australia. Like all sea turtles, Flatback Turtles spend almost all of their time in the ocean, and females typically come to shore only to lay eggs. For that reason, from the time they hatch and enter the surf, males will never be out of the water again and are therefore more difficult to study than females. After mating, females come to shore a few times during the course of the nesting season, dig a burrow, and lay several eggs each time. Much of scientists’ knowledge of these turtles is a result of studying the females when they come ashore and hatchlings as they leave the beach. After several weeks, the baby Flatback Turtles hatch and enter the water together to begin their journey toward adulthood.
Flatback turtles are foraging predators, with adults eating a variety of soft-bodied prey, including jellyfish, sea cucumbers, and other invertebrates. The most significant predation pressure on flatback turtles occurs when the eggs and hatchlings are still on the beach. During that time, a variety of seabirds, terrestrial mammals, and other predators reduce the turtle’s numbers drastically. saltwater crocodiles, sharks, and large bony fishes are the primary natural predators of flatback turtles after they enter the water.
Scientists know little about the population trends or conservation status of the flatback turtles. They simply do not have enough data to assess whether or not this species is at risk of extinction, but the Australian government considers the species to be vulnerable. All other species of sea turtles face a threat of extinction, so it is likely that the flatback turtle’s status is similar. As is the case with other sea turtles, the predominant threats facing flatback turtles include accidental capture in fisheries targeting other species (sign our petition to tell President Trump to enforce better protections from trawl nets) and damage/pollution of nesting beaches. Legal measures often extend to turtle nests but rarely extend to the beaches themselves, so alteration of natural habitat continues to threaten this and other marine turtles. Naturally, only one or two out of several hundred eggs will make it to adulthood. These added anthropogenic pressures on nesting beaches and juvenile and young adult turtles lessen the chance of survival. Further study and monitoring of flatback turtles populations trends is crucial to ensuring that any significant threats to this species can be identified and addressed in a timely fashion.