Relationship between tropical cyclones and the distribution of sea turtle nesting grounds


Mariana M. P. B. Fuentes, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld, 4811, Australia.


Aim  This study examines the relationship between the distribution of existing sea turtle nesting sites and historical patterns of tropical cyclone events to investigate whether cyclones influence the current distribution of sea turtle nesting sites. The results, together with information on predicted cyclone activity and other key environmental variables, will help in the identification and prediction of future nesting sites for sea turtles as changes to the coastal environment continue.

Location  Queensland, Australia.

Methods  We used data on the nesting distribution of seven populations of four species of sea turtles [green (Chelonia mydas), flatback (Natator depressus), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta)] from the eastern Queensland coast, and tropical cyclone track data from 1969 to 2007 to explore the relationship between (1) sea turtle nesting phenology and cyclone season, and (2) sea turtle nesting sites and cyclone distribution. Furthermore, using two green turtle populations as a case study, we investigated the relationship between cyclone disturbance and sea turtle reproductive output, nesting site and season. Bootstrapping was used to explore if current sea turtle nesting sites are located in areas with lower or higher cyclone frequency than areas where turtles are currently not nesting.

Results  All populations of sea turtles studied here were disturbed by cyclone activity during the study period. The exposure (frequency) of tropical cyclones that crossed each nesting site varied greatly among and within the various sea turtle populations. This was mainly a result of the spatial distribution of each population’s nesting sites. Bootstrapping indicated that nesting sites generally have experienced lower cyclone activity than other areas that are available for nesting.

Main conclusions  Tropical cyclones might have been sufficiently detrimental to sea turtle hatching success on the eastern Queensland coast that through a natural selection process turtles in this region are now nesting in areas with lower cyclone activity. Therefore, it is important that future studies that predict climate or range shifts for sea turtle nesting distributions consider future cyclone activity as one of the variables in their model.