Sea turtles use their flippers to play with their food, researchers say

March 28 (UPI) — Though the flippers of sea turtles evolved to aid locomotion, new research shows the reptiles use them to play with their food, too. In fact, the survey of marine tetrapods suggests food manipulation with flippers is common.

“Sea turtles don’t have a developed frontal cortex, independent articulating digits or any social learning,” Kyle Van Houtan, director of science at Monterey Bay Aquarium, said in a news release. “And yet here we have them ‘licking their fingers’ just like a kid who does have all those tools. It shows an important aspect of evolution — that opportunities can shape adaptations.”

Inspired by her studies of sea otters and their tool usage, aquarium research Jessica Fujii wanted to find out whether sea turtles use their flippers in similar ways. Fujii and her colleagues crowdsourced images and video of sea turtles all over the globe using their flippers to manipulate food.

One clip featured a loggerhead rolling a scallop on ocean floor, while another showed a hawksbill pressing against a reef for support while it pulled an anemone loose.

Food manipulation with flippers has been documented in otters, seals, walruses and manatees, but the study — published this week in the journal PeerJ — is the first to highlight the behavior in sea turtles.

“Sea turtles’ limbs have evolved mostly for locomotion, not for manipulating prey,” Fujii said. “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.”

Researchers were surprised to find the behavior so prevalent among sea turtles. Not only do they rely on relatively small and simple brains, they also spend no time with their parents. Unlike marine mammals, newborn turtles aren’t taught to forage by their parents.

“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,” Van Houtan said.