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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Hybridization among the ancient mariners: characterization of marine turtle hybrids with molecular genetic assays.

  • Author(s): Karl, SA
  • Bowen, BW
  • Avise, JC
  • et al.

Reports of hybridization between marine turtle species (family Cheloniidae) have been difficult to authenticate based solely on morphological evidence. Here we employ molecular genetic assays to document the sporadic, natural occurrence of viable interspecific hybrids between species representing four of the five genera of cheloniid sea turtles. Using multiple DNA markers from single-copy nuclear loci, eight suspected hybrids (based on morphology) were confirmed to be the products of matings involving the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) x Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) (N = 1 specimen), loggerhead turtle x hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) (N = 2), loggerhead turtle x green turtle (Chelonia mydas) (N = 4), and green turtle x hawksbill (N = 1). Molecular markers from mitochondrial DNA permitted identification of the maternal parental species in each cross. The species involved in these hybridization events represent evolutionary lineages thought to have separated 10-75 million years ago (mya) and thus may be among the oldest vertebrate lineages capable of producing viable hybrids in nature. In some cases, human intervention with the life cycles of marine turtles (e.g., through habitat alteration, captive rearing, or attempts to establish new breeding sites) may have increased the opportunities for interspecific hybridization.

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