Sea-turtle research on heat’s effect on eggs may aid conservation

Canaveral National Seashore and neighboring beaches in Central Florida are reporting record numbers of loggerhead sea-turtle nests, a promising change from a decade-long drop. But now a new threat is looming: rising temperatures. Summer temperatures are slowly increasing at Canaveral.

This could mean trouble especially for the male of the species, which is already at a disadvantage in Florida. Sea-turtle biologists have long used the adage “hot mamas, cool dads” as a reminder that loggerhead sea turtles become male or female based on the temperature when their eggs incubate — higher temperatures make them females.

With the prospect of even hotter weather as a backdrop, the interplay between temperatures and sea-turtle eggs is the basis for a study by University of Central Florida biology graduate student Monette Auman, who is tracking nest temperatures and hatching success of some loggerhead sea-turtle nests at Canaveral National Seashore.

“It’s an interesting subject to discuss because there are questions like, ‘What does an overabundance of females mean to the population?” Auman said. “And what happens if rising temperatures put sea turtles in a more precarious situation?”

From 2001 to 2011, average temperatures at Canaveral were 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they were from 1961 to 1990, according to a new study released by two environmental groups, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the National Resources Defense Council. Climate-change scenarios suggest that average temperatures could continue to increase an additional 1.8 to 4 degrees by 2060, the report said.

Loggerhead sea turtles are protected under federal law as a threatened species, and Florida beaches are home to 90 percent of the nation’s loggerhead nests, making the state’s shoreline crucial to the species’ survival. The marine-turtle nests are closely tracked, and regulations protect them from human interference.

In recent years, scientists have been concerned that the loggerheads may be in trouble. Though nest counts steadily increased during the 1990s, those counts plummeted 40 percent to record lows in 2007.

To read more about the research from the Orlando Sentinel, please click here.

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