PHILADELPHIA (July 1, 2012)For eastern Pacific populations of leatherback turtles, the 21st century could be the last. New research suggests that climate change could exacerbate existing threats and nearly wipe out the population. Deaths of turtle eggs and hatchlings in nests buried at hotter, drier beaches are the leading projected cause of the potential climate-related decline, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change by a research team from Drexel University, Princeton University, other institutions and government agencies.
Leatherbacks, the largest sea turtle species, are among the most critically endangered due to a combination of historical and ongoing threats including egg poaching at nesting beaches and juvenile and adult turtles being caught in fishing operations. The new research on climate dynamics suggests that climate change could impede this population's ability to recover. If actual climate patterns follow projections in the study, the eastern Pacific population of leatherback turtles will decline by 75 percent by the year 2100.
Modeling the Ebb and Flow of Turtle Hatching with Climate Variation
"We used three models of this leatherback population to construct a climate-forced population dynamics model. Two parts were based on the population's observed sensitivity to the nesting beach climate and one part was based on its sensitivity to the ocean climate," said the study's lead author Dr. Vincent Saba, a research fishery biologist with the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Fisheries Science Center, visiting research collaborator at Princeton University, and a Drexel University alumnus.
Leatherback turtle births naturally ebb and flow from year to year in response to climate variations, with more hatchlings, and rare pulses of male hatchlings, entering the eastern Pacific Ocean in cooler, rainier years. Female turtles are more likely to return to nesting beaches
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