Decreasing annual nest counts in a globally important loggerhead sea turtle population

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: P. K. Dayton.

Abstract

The loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) nests on sand beaches, has both oceanic and neritic life stages, and migrates internationally. We analyzed an 18-year time series of Index Nesting Beach Survey (Index) nest-count data to describe spatial and temporal trends in loggerhead nesting on Florida (USA) beaches. The Index data were highly resolved: 368 fixed zones (mean length 0.88 km) were surveyed daily during annual 109-day survey seasons. Spatial and seasonal coverage averaged 69% of estimated total nesting by loggerheads in the state. We carried out trend analyses on both annual survey-region nest-count totals (N = 18) and annual zone-level nest densities (N = 18 × 368 = 6624). In both analyses, negative binomial regression models were used to fit restricted cubic spline curves to aggregated nest counts. Between 1989 and 2006, loggerhead nest counts on Florida Index beaches increased and then declined, with a net decrease over the 18-year period. This pattern was evident in both a trend model of annual survey-region nest-count totals and a mixed-effect, “single-region” trend model of annual zone-level nest densities that took into account both spatial and temporal correlation between counts. We also saw this pattern in a zone-level model that allowed trend line shapes to vary between six coastal subregions. Annual mean zone-level nest density declined significantly (−28%; 95% CI: −34% to −21%) between 1989 and 2006 and declined steeply (−43%; 95% CI: −48% to −39%) during 1998–2006. Rates of change in annual mean nest density varied more between coastal subregions during the “mostly increasing” period prior to 1998 than during the “steeply declining” period after 1998. The excellent fits (observed vs. expected count R2 > 0.91) of the mixed-effect zone-level models confirmed the presence of strong, positive, within-zone autocorrelation (R > 0.93) between annual counts, indicating a remarkable year-to-year consistency in the longshore spatial distribution of nests over the survey region. We argue that the decline in annual loggerhead nest counts in peninsular Florida can best be explained by a decline in the number of adult female loggerheads in the population. Causes of this decline are explored.

Ancillary