Network for Endangered Sea Turtles 24 HR. HOTLINE 252-441-8622

DNA Study

by Karen Johnson
UPDATED May 2022: Since 2010 N.E.S.T. has participated in a multi-state genetics research project to answer several basic sea turtle nesting questions. By collecting an egg from every single nest, biologists are able to use DNA genetic fingerprinting (CSI for sea turtles) to identify individual sea turtle females, to gather information about sea turtle nesting behavior and habits, and to provide a census of the actual nesting population. In the area monitored by N.E.S.T., over 260 DNA samples have been analyzed with 150+ unique individual female “fingerprints”.

This data gives us a good idea of:

  • The species of the turtle – Loggerhead (our most common), Green, Kemp’s Ridley, Leatherback, or even a surprise Hawksbill
  • How many clutches of eggs (nests) each nesting female lays in a year
  • Whether the turtle is nesting on more than one beach
  • How close together or far apart each individual turtle lays her nests, both within the same summer and from year-to-year
  • The number of turtles nesting in more than one state
  • How often each turtle nests; every two years, three, more, less?
  • How precisely a daughter returns to her hatching beach to lay her own eggs
VDNA sample vial with DNA (turtle egg shell) sample inside
The viral DNA vial shown above uses alcohol as a preservative.  The eggshell from the egg contains maternal DNA.  The embryo is sacrificed and shell is placed in the vial for shipment to the lab.

Cool facts we have learned about turtles in our nesting population (turtles laying at least one nest between Nags Head and the VA/NC state line:

Some turtles have been very site specific, nesting in a very limited range.

  • Nine turtles have nested exclusively between the NC/VA state line and Oregon Inlet and returned more than one season.
  • One turtle laid two nests within a third of a mile of each other in Kitty Hawk in 2012. In 2019, she again laid 2 nests one-half mile apart in Kitty Hawk in the same area as in 2012!
  • A 2016 mom laid three nests that were all located in Nags Head within 3 miles of each other.
  • A 2020 turtle laid four nests in a 5-mile area in Nags Head; three were less than 2.5 miles apart.
  • A 2015 mom laid one nest in her first season. She returned to lay five nests in 2018 and five in 2020; all eleven nests within a range of less than 7 miles.

Some turtles are far less site specific, nesting up and down the coast in multiple states. In North Carolina the average distance between nests for a loggerhead turtle mom is 81.9 km (51.7 miles) which is more traveling between nests than in other states which show the average distance is only 31.8 km (19.6 miles).

  • The maximum distance between nests by any of N.E.S.T.’s turtles is 556 miles. In 2017, a turtle began her nesting in Florida laying two nests.  She then traveled to North Carolina laying 3 (possibly 4) more nests as far north as Corolla.
  • In 2018, a turtle began her nesting in Florida, traveling up almost to the North Carolina/Virginia border to lay a nest in Carova – 546 miles from her first nest.
  • It is not as though the turtles just keep moving up the coast laying nests. They tend to jump north and south throughout the nesting season. In 2019, two first-time nesting moms were long distance travelers. One laid her first nest in Vilano Beach, FL, traveled to Corolla for her next nest, and then finished south in Fort Fisher, NC. Another mom had an impressive nesting season laying at least 5 (and estimated up to 7) nests.  She began in Holden Beach, NC, went south to Cumberland, GA, then back even further north to Southern Shores, winding up her first nesting season.

Previous studies suggest that individual loggerheads average three to four nests a season and return every two years. Results from our data show interesting variations.

  • To date, turtles have laid one to eight nests in a season in North Carolina; the average number of nests laid by turtles is 3.5 per year. For the entire study area (NC-SC-GA-FL-VA-MD), the average is over 6 nests.
  • Nesting in consecutive years is not common but one turtle laid nests in 2012 and 2013! She waited three years before nesting again in 2016. She returned in 2018 laying four or five nests. In 2020, she laid six nests! Except for her first nest in 2012, which she laid in Corolla, this turtle lays her nests in a 30-mile area from Nags Head to Waves.
  • One of our Northern Outer Banks turtles has laid her nests every four years since her first season in 2012.
  • A turtle who loves Cape Hatteras National Seashore goes beyond the average in productivity. In 2012, she laid seven nests, in 2015, eight nests and in 2017, six nests! Another turtle mom, who also lays her nests exclusively on beaches in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, laid 5 nests in 2013, 8 nests in 2016 and 9 nests in 2019.

Looking at the DNA analysis from the last three nesting seasons, we have learned the following interesting facts and nesting behaviors of sea turtles who nested in the Northern Outer Banks.

                                                                                 Total Number of Nests

Species NC Northern Outer Banks
2019 2020 2021 2019 2020 2021
Loggerhead 2293 1335 1448 27 35 32
Green 63* 44 40 0 1 6**
Kemp’s Ridley 2 8 9 1 0 0
*the most ever in NC!     ** the most ever in the Northern Outer Banks!!


Interesting facts learned in the 2021 nesting season

  • The first nest laid in North Carolina was May 9 at Holden Beach by a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle; the first nest laid in the Northern Outer Banks was June 12 by a Loggerhead sea turtle, her first nest since 2015.
  • The last nest laid in 2021 in North Carolina was in the Northern Outer Banks by a Green sea turtle on October 2.  2021 may have been this mom’s first season. We know she laid at least three nests, however, based on crawl patterns to three other nests typical of a Green sea turtle that were consistently laid every two weeks from mid-July to October 2, we think she may have laid six nests in the Northern Outer Banks! Pretty exciting for N.E.S.T. Since 2010 only four Green sea turtles have laid nests in the Northern Outer Banks.
  • Twelve turtles are first time moms, eleven Loggerheads and one Green. Four laid only one nest, and all but two laid their nests in NC.
  • Of our returning moms, four have wide gaps since their previous nests – 6, 8, 9 and 10 years!
  • One mom lays nests only in the Northern Outer Banks. Her first season was 2016.
  • One mom has been laying nests since 2011 every 2-3 years.                                                                     

 Interesting facts learned in the 2020 nesting season

  • The first nest laid in North Carolina was May 3 at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, by a Loggerhead sea turtle; the first nest laid in the Northern Outer Banks was June 1, also by a Loggerhead sea turtle.
  • The last nest laid in 2020 in North Carolina was by a Green sea turtle on October 31 at Cape Hatteras National Seashore; the last nest laid in the Northern Outer Banks was August 22 by a Loggerhead sea turtle.
  • Two turtles laid 8 nests, 4 each in our nesting area, both moms have laid all their nests exclusively in the Northern Outer Banks.
  • Two turtles laid 3 nests each. One of the turtles has been laying since 2011 and only lays her nests in the N.E.S.T. monitoring area. It is also interesting to note that she laid her nests 2 years apart in 2011, 2013 and 2015, and she did not return to nest until five years later in 2020. The other mom has laid all her nests so far, except for one, north of Oregon Inlet.
  • Turtle mom for our first nest of the season has been laying nests at least since 2010 when the DNA Project began.

Interesting facts learned in the 2019 nesting season

  • The first nest laid in North Carolina was May 4 at Cape Lookout National Seashore; the first nest laid in the Northern Outer Banks was May 22.
  • The last nest laid in 2019 in North Carolina was September 17 at Cape Hatteras National Seashore; the last nest laid in the Northern Outer Banks was August 11.
  • 5 turtles together laid 11 of our 28 nests, one laying 3 nests and 4 turtles laying 2 nests each.
  • Nesting histories show that 5 turtles lay nests exclusively in the Northern Outer Banks; one turtle has been nesting since 2012!
  • 4 turtles lay nests only on three beaches – the Northern Outer Banks, Pea Island or Cape Hatteras National Seashore
  • 4 turtles laid only one nest in 2019, their first season

Interesting nesting behaviors of turtles who have nested in the Northern Outer Banks in the past and nest on other beaches

  • A turtle who laid a nest in 2010 in Nags Head returned to lay a nest in Deveaux Bank, SC in 2019 after a 9-year hiatus!
  • Two Loggerhead turtles whose very first nests were laid in the Northern Outer Banks have now relocated south. One turtle had 2 nests in NC in 2015. In 2019, she laid her 5 nests on beaches in SC. The other turtle traveled to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in SC for the remainder of her first season in 2011. 3 years later in 2014, she nested in Cumberland, GA, returning in 2019, after a 5-year nesting gap, to Cumberland.
  • In 2013, a Green sea turtle first-time nesting mom laid one nest in Duck. She disappears for 6 years. In 2019, she laid, once again, only one nest, on Sand Island, SC
  • A mom who laid two nests in 2013, one at False Cape State Park, VA and the other at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, returns after a 6-year gap to lay her 4 nests in the 2020 season in Nags Head. Three of the nests are laid within a 2.5-mile area in Nags Head.

**** N.E.S.T.’s work is done under and is in compliance with Endangered Species Act Permit 22ST10 and complies with all NCWRC permit requirements