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Revisiting the genetic diversity and population structure of the critically endangered leatherback turtles in the South-west Atlantic Ocean: insights for species conservation

  • Sarah M. Vargas (a1) (a2), Luana S. F. Lins (a2), Érica Molfetti (a3), Simon Y. W. Ho (a2), Danielle Monteiro (a4) (a5), Jonathan Barreto (a6) (a7), Liliana Colman (a8), Lucas Vila-Verde (a9), Cecília Baptistotte (a10), João Carlos Alciati Thomé (a10) and Fabrício R. Santos (a11)...

The worldwide population of the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) encompasses seven subpopulations among the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It has experienced declines across parts of its distribution, with the subpopulation of the South-west Atlantic listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List. The main threats to this subpopulation include its interaction with fisheries, coastal development, pollution and climate change. In this study, we sequenced mitochondrial DNA from 52 leatherback turtles in Brazil and combined these with published data from other Atlantic Ocean rookeries. The haplotype diversities of the Atlantic population rookeries ranged from 0.112 to 0.533 and are not directly proportional to current rookery sizes. The Brazilian rookery, despite recording low nest numbers per year, had the second-highest haplotype diversity among all Atlantic rookeries (h = 0.532). A mixed-stock analysis revealed that the South American pelagic aggregate is primarily composed of individuals from West Africa (84%), with contributions from the North Atlantic rookeries (14%). Leatherback turtles appear to have a complex phylogeographic pattern, showing evidence of multiple colonization events and a lack of isolation by distance. Our novel dataset, based on DNA sequences of 695 base pairs, will provide baseline data needed to understand population dynamics in the region, building comprehensive population assessments to support and develop management strategies. Having both the only known regular rookery in the South-west Atlantic, and a mixed-origin foraging area for the species along its coast, Brazil has a key role in the conservation of the leatherback turtle.

Corresponding author
Correspondence should be addressed to: S.M. Vargas Departamento de Ciências Biológicas, Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, Av. Fernando Ferrari, 514, Vitória, ES, 29075-910, Brazil email:
F.R. Santos email:
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