KNIGHT ISLAND — Coyotes have been eating sea turtle eggs out of nests for years, but this year the predators have taken their assault on the reptiles to a higher level.
Coyotes are harassing female turtles as they crawl out of the Gulf and lumber onto the beach to lay their eggs, turtle patrol leaders say.
“The coyotes have been terrible,” said Brenda Bossman, the state permit holder overseeing sea turtle patrol volunteers on the bridgeless Knight and Don Pedro islands.
Female loggerhead sea turtles, the most common species nesting on local beaches, generally lurch onto beaches and crawl from the water to nest at night.
But members of a local turtle patrol are seeing coyote tracks next to turtle tracks, suggesting they are harassing the nesting females dragging themselves onto the beaches.
“The coyotes are following them wherever they go,” Bossman said. “There’s no evidence of blood or anything to show they were attacking the turtles.”
The situation may be somewhat unique.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sea turtle nesting researchers receive data on the number of nests destroyed or damaged by predators as part of its year-end statewide nesting report.
“They do not have record of coyotes harassing nesting sea turtles on Florida beaches,” FWC spokeswoman Michelle Kerr said. “Our researchers have received one anecdotal report from a nesting survey permit holder who witnessed evidence of coyote tracks near nests and nesting sea turtles this season.”
So far this nesting season, which officially started May 1, Knight and Don Pedro sea turtle patrols have reported 20 nests. Out of those nests, two were completely preyed upon by coyotes digging up the eggs and three nests partially preyed upon by coyotes.
The islands have seen three times as many false crawls, where a female will crawl onto the beach but return to Gulf without laying her eggs. False crawls aren’t unusual, but that many is, Bossman suggested.
A female coyote has made its home on the islands. She’s been elusive, attracted males that swim across the Intracoastal Waterway and has birthed litters annually, according to Bossman.
Interestingly, raccoons haven’t been preying on the nests as much as they had in past years, Bossman noted.
On the brighter side of sea turtle nesting news, Bossman reported a nesting Kemp’s ridley, one of the rarest and most endangered sea turtle species nesting locally, has been spotted on the islands.
Nesting turtle counts
The Coastal Wildlife Club, which oversees sea turtle patrols on Manasota Key, reported 136 loggerhead nests, as of May 8. Of those nests, 40 were laid in April.
As of May 9, Mote Marine Laboratory reported 119 nests and 130 false crawls on Gulf beaches from Venice north to Longboat Key. Venice is a hot spot for coyotes preying on nests, said Mote spokeswoman Stephannie Kettle.