1. Maintaining a high and stable body temperature is often critical for female ectotherms during reproduction. Yet this strategy may be energetically costly, and therefore challenging, during this period of already high-energy demand.
2. Here, the 6-week deployment of tri-axial accelerometers (n = 6) on a marine ectotherm, the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), reproducing at the northern limit of the species’ breeding range (i.e. in a thermally dynamic environment) revealed the behavioural mechanisms underlying its energy management strategy during the breeding season.
3. The estimated activity levels of female loggerheads using overall dynamic body acceleration (ODBA) were high during the breeding season, suggesting that marine turtles may not be able to remain inactive for long periods in the same manner as terrestrial ectotherms, because of the thermally dynamic nature of their environment.
4. However, activity levels were not constant throughout the season, being impacted by both ambient water temperature and female reproductive status. In cold water at the beginning of the nesting season, high levels of activity suggested that females behaviourally thermoregulated by seeking out warm water patches along the shoreline. Interactions with male turtles (courtship and/or avoidance) may also explain this high level of activity. As sea temperatures warmed up and the amount of energy devoted to reproduction probably increased, the turtles spent more time resting during long sequential flat-bottomed dives, and reduced any unnecessary locomotory activity.
5. Turtles may therefore adjust their activity patterns in response to seasonal variations in abiotic (i.e. ambient temperature) and biotic (i.e. reproductive status) factors. This may help minimize activity-linked metabolic rate and maximize reproductive output over a season while breeding in thermally dynamic environments.
6. A mechanistic model gave support to these empirical results. The model revealed that actively maintaining high and stable body temperature is of clear benefit to female turtles at temperate breeding sites. While energetically costly, such active thermoregulatory behaviour may speed up egg maturation, allowing turtles to initiate nesting earlier in the season, and hence maximize reproductive output.