Sea turtle flippers might appear to be useful for swimming and… not much else. But it turns out at least some turtles them have figured out a way to use these appendages like an awkward pair of arms.
A team of researchers studying turtles observed a few cases of turtles using their flippers as arms, for things like digging and pushing off. The also think that these behaviours aren’t new, but ones that turtles have been using for at least 70 million years.
“Maybe an ancestral turtle evolved this trait and they carried over to the marine environment,” study lead author Jessica Fujii from the Monterey Bay Aquarium told Gizmodo.
The researchers observed green, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles in different contexts using their limbs to assist with foraging in the wild, according to the study published recently in PeerJ.
Turtles join other groups of animals like seals and whales, which use their appendage evolved for being underwater to awkwardly do more mundane things like striking, holding and digging.
Some have theorised that the behaviour is learned, but given the number of species that do (and that don’t) do this, perhaps the story is more complex. Fujii pointed out that otters are social animals who may teach one another other ways to use their flippers, and sea turtles are rather solitary but still have figured out a similar behaviour. Perhaps it’s instinct or learning by trial and error.
So, even though the turtle foraging in the video above may look like me trying to garden with my elbows, it clearly serves a useful purpose for the animal.
Said Fujii, “Even if it’s still awkward, it may be helping with survival.”