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New York Times Blog Asks Us: Do We Really Need Turtles?

“Does the world need leatherback turtles? Most likely not.”

That’s how the New York Times coverage (thanks!) of the Great Turtle Race II came to a close Monday.  This was presumedly a “devil’s advocate” position, but it seems that some of Mr. Revkin’s readers heartily agreed.  Perhaps you’ve never thought about the value of leatherbacks beyond their instrinsic right to exist?  Or recognized that sea turtles have what Economists’ refer to as “existence value” (the value people like me derive from laying in bed knowing that somewhere out there swims a creature of incredible resiliency and grace)?  Or maybe you implicitly understood that to pose this question about an ancient species makes the world… a smaller, lonelier place.

The question “Does the world need [insert]?” seldoms gets asked, but could be applied much more broadly.  Does the world need potato chips?  Does the world need high heels?  Does the world need air travel?  These aren’t questions that we ask ourselves.  Why not?  And what does it mean when we pose this question about a 100-million-year-old species?  Is it indicative of the hubris and anthropocentrism of a modern life spent mostly indoors?  Is it ignorance?  Is it greed?

What is going on?!?  What does your life experience tell you?

And in case you are wondering, here’s how Todd Steiner responded:

We (the Earth’s inhabitants) definitely do need leatherback turtles. This isn’t a question of aesthetics, as some readers state, because the ultimate lesson of ecology is “everything is connected.”

For example, nesting leatherback and other sea turtles reverse the usual flow of energy from land to sea and bring nutrients from the sea back to low nutrient beach habitats. Their eggs provide calcium that supports growth of dune vegetation which is the frontline against hurricane impacts on other inland habitats (where people like to build people their homes).

Leatherbacks eat (lots of) jellyfish including the stinging type we all like to avoid. Jellyfish blooms (which impact fisheries, recreation, and other maritime activities) have been linked to decrease in sea turtle populations.

Leatherback eggs and hatchlings feed a myriad of terrestrial species, which in their unique ways connect to other parts of our ecosystem upon which humans and other species rely.

These are some of roles we know leatherbacks play in ecosystem functions and who knows how other roles they play that we don’t know.

It is arrogant to think that we humans know enough about the role various species play in the web of life to assume it’s OK to lose a few of the working parts.

If you disagree, try to take apart a clock and just throw away one of the pieces that doesn’t look that imortant. Put the clock back together and see if still works.