Forecasting the viability of sea turtle eggs in a warming world


  • David A. Pike

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Marine and Tropical Biology, Centre for Tropical Environmental & Sustainability Science, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD, Australia
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Animals living in tropical regions may be at increased risk from climate change because current temperatures at these locations already approach critical physiological thresholds. Relatively small temperature increases could cause animals to exceed these thresholds more often, resulting in substantial fitness costs or even death. Oviparous species could be especially vulnerable because the maximum thermal tolerances of incubating embryos is often lower than adult counterparts, and in many species mothers abandon the eggs after oviposition, rendering them immobile and thus unable to avoid extreme temperatures. As a consequence, the effects of climate change might become evident earlier and be more devastating for hatchling production in the tropics. Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) have the widest nesting range of any living reptile, spanning temperate to tropical latitudes in both hemispheres. Currently, loggerhead sea turtle populations in the tropics produce nearly 30% fewer hatchlings per nest than temperate populations. Strong correlations between empirical hatching success and habitat quality allowed global predictions of the spatiotemporal impacts of climate change on this fitness trait. Under climate change, many sea turtle populations nesting in tropical environments are predicted to experience severe reductions in hatchling production, whereas hatching success in many temperate populations could remain unchanged or even increase with rising temperatures. Some populations could show very complex responses to climate change, with higher relative hatchling production as temperatures begin to increase, followed by declines as critical physiological thresholds are exceeded more frequently. Predicting when, where, and how climate change could impact the reproductive output of local populations is crucial for anticipating how a warming world will influence population size, growth, and stability.