Nest Is a Mad Scramble at Hatching Time

Summer 2017
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It always seems somehow miraculous that little turtle hatchlings are able to make their way up through about 15 or more inches of packed beach sand and escape the nest for their journey to the sea. Dr. Archie Carr, the grand old man of sea turtle conservation and research, described the process in an amusing way in his book about sea turtles, rather cryptically entitled “So Excellent a Fishe”.

During his studies in Costa Rica, he and his staff relocated a nest with a glass panel fitted into one side. At hatching, he reports as follows what they observed:

"The first young that hatch do not start digging at once but lie still until some of their nest-mates are free of the egg. Each new hatchling adds to the working space, because the spherical eggs and the spaces between them make a volume greater than that of the young and the crumpled shells. The vertical displacement that will carry the turtles to the surface is the upward migration of this chamber, brought about by the witless collaboration that is really a loose sort of division of labor. Although the movements involved are only a generalized thrashing, similar to those that free the hatchling from the egg, they accomplish four different and indispensable things, depending on the position of the turtle in the mass. Turtles of the top layer scratch down the ceiling. Those around the sides undercut the walls. Those on the bottom have two roles, one mechanical and the other psychological: they trample and compact the sand that filters down from above, and they serve as a sort of nervous system for the hatchling superorganism, stirring it out of recurrent spells of lassitude. Lying passively for a time under the weight of its fellows, one of them will suddenly burst into a spasm of squirming that triggers a new pandemic of work in the mass. Thus, by fits and starts, the ceiling falls, the floor rises, and the roomful of collaborating hatchlings is carried toward the surface.

"The turtle siblings thus appear to operate as a survival group; a group, the members of which, by instinctive, generalized, and wholly non-altruistic actions help one another to survive. The little survival band is not trained or prompted by any coach, nor does it consciously work toward any common end. It is just a lot of baby turtles getting restless and becoming annoyed with one another, but in useful ways. Their petulance at being crowded, jostled, and trod upon makes them flail about aimlessly. It is the aimless flailing that takes them steadily up to the surface of the ground."

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