New global database helps trace sea turtle origins to better protect them

Sea turtle hatchlings climb out of a nest in the sand and head toward the ocean in the background

Sea turtles have spent more than 100 million years honing impressive navigation abilities. After traveling thousands of miles from the beach where they were born, these ancient creatures can find their way back to that same location to build a nest and lay their own eggs. This process has led to several genetically distinct populations unique to a given nesting region across all seven sea turtle species—critical variations that could hold the key to better protection of sea turtles that face many threats from human activity.

WWF’s ShellBank is the world’s first global traceability toolkit and database of sea turtle DNA that aims to reverse the decline of sea turtles and recover populations. By safely extracting DNA from any sea turtle or sea turtle part or product and running it through the ShellBank open-access and publicly available database, conservationists, researchers, and law enforcers can now detect which populations are most at risk and make precise and targeted efforts to protect them. They can also contribute data to help track, trace, and protect endangered sea turtles globally. More than 13,000 samples from over 50 countries have been added to the ShellBank database. The platform is supported by a core team of partners from the Australian Museum’s Australian Center for Wildlife Genomics, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network.

A leatherback turtle moves toward the ocean.

Sea turtles travel thousands of miles from the beaches where they hatched.

Tackling the illegal sea turtle trade and bycatch

Human activities have negatively impacted populations of these ancient creatures through the illegal trade of the sea turtles themselves; their parts, eggs, and meat; and accidental capture in fishing nets, among other threats. Despite a global trade ban enacted in 1977 and multiple policies to reduce bycatch and overexploitation of sea turtles, their illegal capture and trade persists. And one of the greatest challenges to tackling the illegal capture and trade of sea turtles is the inability to identify which populations are targeted and most at risk.

ShellBank is a game changer in that it addresses a sea turtle data gap and helps governments, conservationists, and communities connect the dots to implement more targeted protection measures. The data can also enhance our understanding of how specific sea turtle populations forage, nest, and migrate, and whether neighboring populations interact. This information is critical given the extensive threats these species face.

Over the last 30 years alone, at least 1.1 million sea turtles have been illegally killed and exploited in 65 countries.¹ Of these, at least 22% were likely traded internationally. Global estimates of around 460,000 individual shell items were found for sale between 2017 and 2020 with substantial illegal markets still in existence.² And more than 85,000 marine turtles were caught accidentally in fishing nets worldwide between 1990 and 2008.³

Dr. Greta Frankham drills into a tortoise shell (not from a live turtle) to collect a DNA sample

Dr. Greta Frankham extracts DNA from a sea turtle shell.

ShellBank is already starting to turn this tide. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Hong Kong, in collaboration with Hong Kong’s federal government and ShellBank, sampled and analyzed over 100 tortoiseshell items in Hong Kong’s seizure stockpile to better understand how to dismantle the illegal trade in sea turtles. Knowing where sea turtles are poached most frequently can help authorities take action to protect these species.

And the platform does more than help curb poaching; it also helps provide conservationists with critical and precise data on different, targeted sea turtle populations. For the first time in the Coral Triangle—a marine area in the western Pacific Ocean—local researchers and citizen scientists in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia have mapped seven previously unknown, genetically distinct populations of hawksbill turtles. In Indonesia’s Java Sea, a study revealed multiple unique genetic variations across just six closely situated nesting sites, surprising scientists with the diversity in such a small area.

A brighter future for the world’s sea turtles

Sea turtles are fundamental to ocean ecosystems and cultures around the world. And the more that ShellBank grows, the more we will understand these fascinating, ancient animals and discover the missing pieces needed to ensure they are protected for years to come.

For more information—or if you have data to contribute or would like to support ShellBank—please visit or write to [email protected].


[1] Senko-Burgher et al., 2022

[2] Nahill et al., 2020

[3] Wallace et al., 2010