October 21 of this year is Reptile Awareness Day and many species of marine reptiles are in trouble due to their polluted habitats and threats by man. If we don’t take the time to act now, many of these amazing creatures will go extinct. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there are more than 12,000 species of reptiles and about 100 of those can be found in the oceans. Marine reptiles include seven species of sea turtles, more than 80 species of sea snakes, the saltwater crocodile and the marine iguana of the Galapagos Islands. The majority of marine reptiles are sea snakes that live in tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and are being threatened by deforestation and habitat loss. All species of sea turtles are endangered and the marine iguana is very vulnerable due to its limited habitat range. Marine reptiles are usually restricted to warmer waters because they are cold-blooded and depend on the external temperature of the water to control their metabolic rates. Marine reptiles all have salt glands, which remove excess salts and help them survive in their marine environments.
There are many species of sea snakes and each has a different form and behavior. However, they all have a few things in common, including their nostrils being set on top of their snout instead of on each side, flaps that keep these nostrils closed underwater, and a gland in their mouth that helps them get rid of the salt from the seawater they drink. They have smaller belly plates than land snakes. They only have one lung like most snakes, but it is very long to aid in the absorption of oxygen. Sea snakes are related to the cobras and are the most venomous of all snakes. Sea snake populations are in trouble due to being hunted for their skins.
There is only one species of marine lizard remaining, which is the marine Iguana, found on the Galapagos Islands. These creatures have flattened tails for swimming and salt glands to get rid of excess salt when they are eating. They feed off of seaweed and spend much of their days basking in the sun on warm rocks. The saltwater crocodile inhabits mangrove areas in the Indian Ocean, as well as the Australian and Pacific Islands. These animals average about 20 feet in length and are threatened due to habitat loss and deforestation in the mangroves.
According to the Center for Coastal Studies, sea turtles are highly adapted to life in the water by being able to hold their breath for a long time, as well as having a hard shell for protection and flippers for swimming long distances. Females will return to the beach on which they were born to lay their eggs, with about 100 eggs in each nest. According to the Indian Ocean Commission, each of the seven species of sea turtles are endangered due to being hunted for their meat, shells and eggs. As stated by the World Wildlife Fund, many sea turtles die each year in fishing nets and often sea turtles will ingest plastics in the oceans thinking it is food. Urban development is also threatening the nesting grounds of these turtles and they are unable to lay their eggs. Additionally, climate change is a huge threat to sea turtles because as the ocean temperatures rise, they are unable to reproduce or find food.
Each of these marine reptiles are unique, amazing and in trouble. Help protect these species by not buying items made from their skin or shells. Also, participate in beach cleanups to pick up trash along the shore. Jellyfish are one of the favorite foods of sea turtles but look a lot like plastic bags. Bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store to prevent plastic debris ending up in our oceans. Reduce, reuse, and recycle to protect our planet and its creatures. These animals have been on the planet for over 100 million years and together we can help their populations thrive in the future.
Photos by Stefanie Schmidt