New research shows that even "toddler" sea turtles are extremely active swimmers, and don't just "drift" in the ocean as was previously believed.

The findings could help solve the mystery of where sea turtles go during their "lost years," the NOAA reported. During their first years of life turtles make a mysterious journey before returning to coastal areas as adults.

"All species of sea turtles are endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act; knowing their distribution is an essential part of protecting them. With a better understanding of swimming behavior in these yearlings we can make better predictions about where they go and what risks they might encounter," said Nathan Putman, lead author of this new study and sea turtle biologist with NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami.

On theory is that some of these turtles drift on seaweed matts, which provide shelter and protection. To determine where the turtles go during their lost years scientists attached solar-powered tags to 24 green and 20 Kemp's ridley wild-caught sea turtle toddlers in the Gulf of Mexico. The team alos deployed small buoys next to the turtles, which were tracked by satellite.

A comparison between the passively drifting buoys and the sea turtles showed the animals took much different paths, suggesting they were actively swimming. The difference proved to be as much as 125 miles within only the first few days of observation.

"The results of our study have huge implications for better understanding early sea turtle survival and behavior, which may ultimately lead to new and innovative ways to further protect these imperiled animals," said Kate Mansfield, director of the University of Central Florida's Marine Turtle Research Group. "What is exciting is that this is the first study to release drifters with small, wild-caught yearling or neonate sea turtles in order to directly test the 'passive drifter' hypothesis in these young turtles. Our data show that one hypothesis doesn't, and shouldn't, fit all, and that even a small degree of swimming or active orientation can make a huge difference in the dispersal of these young animals."

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Current Biology.