While monitoring green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) nests off Mozambique's northern coast, biologists at the Vamizi Conservation and Research centre made a surprising discovery: not one, but four tiny turtle hatchlings were completely colourless.

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Image: Joana Trindade

This is the first time albino turtles have been seen on the island since the monitoring programme began back in 2003. Sadly, only two of the four survived long enough to reach the surf, but according to Conservation and Community Manager, Joana Trindade this is a better result than they expected. 

"Albinism is often associated with other malformations, which is why most animals die a few hours after being born, so having two true albino hatchlings surviving and having no apparent external malformations [is] considered quite rare," she told GrindTV. "Plus, albino turtles often live longer than many other albino animals, so we are optimistic."

Green sea turtles are considered endangered by the IUCN and face a multitude of threats, including habitat loss, harvesting of their eggs, damage to nesting beaches and entanglement in fishing gear. They are one of the largest sea turtle species, but interestingly, are also the only one that's completely herbivorous. A taste for leafy greens means these turtles have one more hurdle to contend with: damage to seagrass beds. 

A single acre of seagrass can produce over 10 tons of leaves per year. Beyond providing sustenance for turtles, this small swath of grass can provide food, habitat, and nursery areas for as many as 40,000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates.

Given that their unusual colouring makes them especially vulnerable to predators, several commenters have questioned Trindade and her team for releasing the albino hatchlings. 

"We only handled the turtles because they were found stuck in the nest," she explains, adding that she and her team try not to interfere with the natural world. "If these hatchlings managed to survive the first few days of their journeys at sea, there is a good chance they will make it to adulthood like any other hatchling with normal pigmentation who also manages to survive this phase."

The team will be studying the tissue samples from the turtles that didn't survive, which will help us understand what causes albinism in the species, and how to better help any future hatchlings. 

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Image: Joana Trindade/Facebook
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Image: Joana Trindade/Facebook

Top header image: Philippe Guillaume/Flickr

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