Who stole 83 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings from their nest on Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina? A $5,000 reward has been posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the turtle-napper(s).

Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) are protected as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, as well as under North Carolina state law. Anyone caught killing or stealing the turtles faces up to a $100,000 fine and a year in prison.

Volunteers helping to monitor loggerhead nests discovered the theft on Aug. 6. Sea turtle coordinator Gloria Hillenburg told local news station WECT that the hatchlings, which were dug up from their underground nest, are too young to survive on their own. "They were hatching underneath the nest, and whoever it was went and dug a hole and took the babies," Hillenburg told North Carolina's Star News.

In addition to the pilfered hatchlings, 38 eggs were stolen from another nest earlier this year, the first egg theft on the island in 20 years. The remaining 19 nests on the island have not been disturbed, and volunteers now plan 24-hour surveillance to prevent further tampering.

The motive for the turtle thefts remains unclear. Sea turtle eggs have a market value both as souvenirs and an aphrodisiac, but less demand exists for live sea turtles, especially ones so young.

Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service this week issued a report finding that loggerhead sea turtle populations in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans face extinction as seven of nine populations have experienced significant declines, and all nine populations "have the potential to decline in the future." Loggerheads' greatest threats, according to the report, include longline fishing, marine debris and ship strikes.

Image: Loggerhead sea turtle baby, via Wikipedia