Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.Sc.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


The Chesapeake Bay and coastal waters of Virginia, U.S.A. serve as foraging grounds for loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempi) sea turtles from approximately May to October each year. Both loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys are known to feed primarily on benthic invertebrates as juveniles and adults, but specific prey preferences vary between geographic regions. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science Sea Turtle Program has collected diet data and gut samples from stranded and incidentally caught sea turtles in Virginia since 1979. Examination of turtles that stranded in Virginia during the late 1970s and early 1980s indicated that loggerheads fed primarily on Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) and Kemp’s ridleys primarily on blue crab (Callinectes sapidus).

During 1980 to 1994, 1997, and 2000 to 2002, 128 whole digestive tract samples and 41 partial gut samples were collected from loggerheads in Virginia. Diet information was noted on stranding datasheets for an additional 134 loggerheads from 1980 to 2002. Twenty-three whole samples and 10 partial samples were collected in Virginia from Kemp’s ridleys during 1987 to 1994 and 2000 to 2002, and data were available on an additional 26 ridleys from 1983 to 2002. Prey items in the samples were identified to the lowest possible taxonomic level, and dry weights and prey item counts were recorded. Results indicate a shift in loggerhead diet from predominantly horseshoe crab during the early to mid-1980s to predominantly blue crab during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Loggerhead diet in the mid-1990s and 2000 to 2002 was dominated by finfish, particularly menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) and croaker (Micropogonias undulatus). These diet shifts suggest that fishery-related declines in horseshoe crab and blue crab populations have caused loggerheads to instead forage on fish caught in nets or on discarded bycatch. A slight seasonal effect on diet was also detected, and the diet of juvenile loggerheads differed somewhat from that of the adults. The small Kemp’s ridley dataset suggests that blue crabs and spider crabs (Libinia spp.) were important components of ridley diet in Virginia during 1987 to 2002.



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