Researchers have made a fascinating and honestly pretty cute finding about sea turtles: Some are using their flippers not just for swimming, but also to help forage for food or capture prey, like big awkward arms.
“Sea turtles’ limbs have evolved mostly for locomotion, not for manipulating prey,” lead study author Jessica Fujii, a researcher with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, said in a Wednesday press release. “But that they’re doing it anyway suggests that, even if it’s not the most efficient or effective way, it’s better than not using them at all.”
Through directly observing sea turtles and also watching crowdsourced videos of the aquatic reptiles, scientists saw them using their flippers for things like digging, pushing themselves off of objects, and, in the case of one loggerhead turtle, rolling a scallop across the ocean floor.
One photo of a green turtle swiping at a jellyfish even looks as if the turtle is “karate chopping” the creature, The Telegraph noted.
In the study, researchers wrote that it’s “unlikely” any of these behaviors are crucial for the turtles to obtain food, but that “they may aid feeding efficiency and expand foraging or habitat niches.”
So besides really endearing us to sea turtles, why is this finding interesting? For one thing, sea turtles are solitary animals that never even meet their parents, so they aren’t learning this behavior from other turtles, the way some animals learn skills from one another.
“They’re never trained to forage by their mom,” Monterey Bay Aquarium science director Kyle Van Houtan said in the release. “It’s amazing that they’re figuring out how to do this without any apprenticing, and with flippers that aren’t well adapted for these tasks.”
Researchers now wonder whether using their flippers this way is something that individual turtles figure out through trial and error, or if it’s an innate behavior that they inherit.
“Maybe an ancestral turtle evolved this trait and they carried over to the marine environment,” Fujii told Gizmodo.