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The Hawksbill turtle "Leucistic" phenomenon is registered for the first time in Qatar and the Arabian Gulf | Qatar University

The Hawksbill turtle "Leucistic" phenomenon is registered for the first time in Qatar and the Arabian Gulf

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The Environmental Science Center (ESC) at Qatar University has monitored and studied Hawksbill turtle nesting sites for the past 18 years in cooperation with the Ministry of Municipalities and Environment. On the ninth of May 2020, during the monitoring of Hawksbill turtle nests on the beaches of Ras Laffan City, researchers of Qatar University (ESC) were surprised to find that 14 pale yellow hatchlings had emerged from a nest containing 63 eggs, a rate of 22.2%. Also, on the ninth of July, the team found another nest in which another four pale yellow (creamy) hatchlings emerged, from a total of 85 eggs, a rate of 6%.
These two observations are rare on the beaches of Qatar, the Arabian Gulf and the world, and as a result, members of our scientific team at the Environmental Sciences Center studied this phenomenon and its causes. After studying and examination, the team concluded that the underlying cause of this phenomenon is due to the lack of pigment cells known as "melanin", this substance plays an essential role in the color of skin, eyes and shell. These hatchlings found on the beaches of Ras Laffan presented an overall pale yellow coloration, compared to the green normally displayed. However, they all retained black eyes, which means they fall under the term of “leucistic”, which is a partial loss of pigment cells. This has multiple causes, including the occurrence of an imbalance, disruption, or interruption of cells producing the pigment "melanin".
“Leucistic” turtles are distinguished from others whose body and eyes appear white due to the total loss of pigment cells, referred to as “albinism”. Albino turtles have genetic disorders, or a genetic mutation that leads to the inhibition of melanin production, resulting in a complete absence of pigment cells. Albinism is a genetic disease due to the presence of a rare recessive gene in both parents. When these parents mate, the disease is present in a quarter of their offspring, and the rest carry the recessive gene. Scientists do not know the fundamental reason for cessation of pigment cell production, some scientists attribute this to an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system destroys pigment cells, while others cite genetic or environmental reasons, for example stress from sunlight or industrial chemical exposure.
Dr. Jassim Al-Khayat, Project Manager said: “The presence of white skin will inhibit sea turtle hatchlings’ ability to camouflage and avoid predation, this is a critical factor determining their survival, particularly for the first few years of life. Over millions of years of evolution, living organisms, including turtles, have developed the right amount of pigmentation to harmonize with their habitats and surroundings. But sudden pigmentation disorders cause them to stand out very clearly in the wild, making them easier targets for predators. We hope these turtles can survive and thrive in the wild.”
Prof. Dr. Hamad Al-Kuwari - Director of the Environmental Sciences Center - Qatar University- Turtle Project leader, said: “The study of marine turtles by the Environmental Science Center (ESC) does not stop in August despite it being the end the annual nesting season. A new phase begins after the fieldwork stage. ESC researchers will analyze all samples and data collected relating to turtle, egg and hatchling morphometrics, as well as various nesting frequencies and environmental parameters observed during the season. These results will be compared to data from previous years to investigate important and emerging phenomena regarding marine turtles in Qatari waters.”
In addition to monitoring and tracking turtles through satellites throughout the year, DNA testing and other various analyses of samples collected from mother turtles and their hatchlings will be carried out. Samples from the nests and their surrounding environment will be analyzed to elucidate key drivers involved in marine turtle nesting behaviour and to document these in reports submitted to relevant authorities. This data will also be used to advance global knowledge of marine turtles by publishing scientific articles in leading international scientific journals.”
Hawksbill turtles nest annually in Qatar mainly between April and May; however, the nesting period extends until mid-June. Northern beaches, including Ras Laffan, are one of the most preferred and prime nesting sites for this species of turtle. This year, the Environmental Science Center created a new hatchery for turtle nests in Ras Laffan Industrial City. The primary reason for moving nests to the hatchery was that the nesting area is subject to considerable predation from foxes digging up nests and eating eggs. The project took place last year and this year with the support of Qatar Petroleum (2019-2020).

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