Hot Beaches are Not Cool for Leatherbacks
For most of us, the hotter the beach is in summer, the cooler and better to enjoy the long, sunny day. But hotter beaches due to climate change is the last thing leatherback turtles need.
Increased hot and dry conditions in leatherbacks’ nesting areas cause buried eggs to be desiccated in the blistering sand, spoiling them. Even when turtle hatchlings are fully developed, they die because they are unable to break their way through the substrate.
Projected climate patterns revealed that the eastern Pacific population of leatherbacks could decline by as much as 75% by 2100.
Leatherback turtles are already critically endangered and are a priority species of WWF. They are the largest marine turtles and one of the largest living reptiles today. Leatherback turtles are thought to have existed on the planet for more than a hundred million years. Today this ancient creature is threatened by habitat loss and degradation, wildlife trade, collection of eggs and meat for consumption, bycatch or incidental capture, pollution, and climate change (WWF).
Increased protection against illegal collection of eggs has boosted the population of leatherbacks in several areas, particularly in southernAfricafor the last three decades. WWF along with other conservation groups continue to work toward conservation of leatherback habitats, critical nesting beaches, and migratory pathways. This includes establishment of sanctuaries, raising local community awareness and regional agreements in marine turtle conservation, and reduction of marine turtle bycatch through promotion of modified gears.
Such conservation efforts and measures should help the species’ population to regain lost numbers, but the research suggested that climate change could seriously hinder the leatherbacks’ recovery.
Temperature dictates the gender of baby turtles, with warm conditions producing females and cooler ones producing males. Even if leatherback hatchlings survive baking beach conditions, the predominance of females could potentially lead to difficulties due to a lopsided population.
However, changing climate conditions in critical nesting areas may not even give the hatchlings a chance. Local climate data and models overlaid with the hatchlings’ success rate revealed that climate variability will significantly influence egg development and the leatherback babies’ emersion from the sand. Climate variations also influenced the female leatherbacks’ preference for nesting sites, as they are likely to return to nesting beaches in cooler and rainier years when jellyfish (one of leatherbacks’ preys) are abundant. Leatherback eggs and hatchlings also have greater chances of survival in these seasons.
The leatherbacks’ famously long lifetimes may also hinder natural selection and adaptations from helping their species survive, because they are likely to succumb to climate change effects before these are developed. This is especially probable with leatherback populations in the Eastern Pacific, which is the study’s focus.
Leatherback turtles are included in National Geographic’s Ten U.S. Species Feeling Global Warming’s Heat list. The list also included elkhorn coral, bull trout, Canada lynx, and tiny bog turtles among other species that are vulnerable to climate change and rising temperature.
The research team which conducted the study is looking into methods such as using shading systems and sprinkler units to mitigate conditions that prove deadly to leatherback eggs and hatchlings. In a NY Times Green article however, researchers from the team admitted that such local interventions can only go so far and will not suffice to replace global efforts in addressing climate change.
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