Climate change affecting sex of Australian turtles

14 January, 2018, 11:13 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • There's something strange happening with endangered green sea turtles in Australia, and scientists have figured out why

Turtles from the cooler southern reef nesting beaches showed a more moderate female sex bias (65%-69% female).

The new study, published in the journal Current Biology this week, found that 99 percent of juvenile sea turtles born in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef are female.

Allen comes to this conclusion from the team's analysis of recorded air and sea temperatures from one of the nesting sites of the northern population from 1960 to 2016.

A study published today in the journal Current Biology - led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S. and in conjunction with scientists from Australia - found the group of turtles had primarily produced females for two decades, because of increasing temperatures.

The findings also highlight concerns about sea turtle populations in other parts of the world that don't exhibit such a "strength in numbers" as the Great Barrier Reef turtle communities. These data show that while the now-adult turtles would have been hatched in temperatures close to 29.3?C (the temperature at which the sex ratio is 1:1), in more recent decades, when the now-juveniles and sub-adults hatched, temperatures were consistently higher.

Here's a fun fact to bring out at parties: green sea turtle eggs hatch into males or females based on the temperature of their surroundings.

The ages of the female turtles in the north suggest that this population has experienced temperatures that cause this imbalance since at least the 1990s.

The sex of turtle hatchlings is determined by sand temperatures, with warmer temperatures resulting in more females. At this temperature, the resulting young turtle population is relatively evenly split between males and females.

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With warming global temperatures and most sea turtle populations naturally producing offspring above the pivotal temperature [14], it is clear that climate change poses a serious threat to the persistence of these populations.

"It is deeply concerning, because if it continues we're going to start to lose the male population, (which is) essential for breeding and keeping those populations sustainable in one of the world's most important green turtle populations".

That was an increase in more females being born over time, because the adult population has an 86.7 per cent female bias.

"Males breed more often than females do ... so we're pretty confident that males will over-compensate for this and be able to mate with several females throughout the season".

David Owens, a professor emeritus from the College of Charleston in SC, was not involved in the new study but said he has dreamed of doing such research for years.

"The pace of change affecting these populations is probably unlike anything they have experienced before", research biologist Camryn Allen, Ph.D., of NOAA Fisheries' Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and a coauthor of the new research, said in a statement.

There are two genetically distinct populations of green turtles on the Reef. "We know that species evolve in response to climate and other environmental changes, but they need time for that". For every one male, there are two females, according to the new research. "I sure hope so and I'm sure there will be", Ms Allen said. There are an estimated 200,000 females nesting on beaches in the northern Great Barrier Reef, the majority of which are located on two small coral cays.

That'll be why they call sea turtles the "polar bears of the south", then.

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