Concept: Leatherback turtle
Climate change affects species and ecosystems around the globe . The impacts of rising temperature are particularly pertinent in species with temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD), where the sex of an individual is determined by incubation temperature during embryonic development . In sea turtles, the proportion of female hatchlings increases with the incubation temperature. With average global temperature predicted to increase 2.6°C by 2100 , many sea turtle populations are in danger of high egg mortality and female-only offspring production. Unfortunately, determining the sex ratios of hatchlings at nesting beaches carries both logistical and ethical complications. However, sex ratio data obtained at foraging grounds provides information on the amalgamation of immature and adult turtles hatched from different nesting beaches over many years. Here, for the first time, we use genetic markers and a mixed-stock analysis (MSA), combined with sex determination through laparoscopy and endocrinology, to link male and female green turtles foraging in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to the nesting beach from which they hatched. Our results show a moderate female sex bias (65%-69% female) in turtles originating from the cooler southern GBR nesting beaches, while turtles originating from warmer northern GBR nesting beaches were extremely female-biased (99.1% of juvenile, 99.8% of subadult, and 86.8% of adult-sized turtles). Combining our results with temperature data show that the northern GBR green turtle rookeries have been producing primarily females for more than two decades and that the complete feminization of this population is possible in the near future.
Herbivory is widely accepted as a vital function on coral reefs. To date, the majority of studies examining herbivory in coral reef environments have focused on the roles of fishes and/or urchins, with relatively few studies considering the potential role of macroherbivores in reef processes. Here, we introduce evidence that highlights the potential role of marine turtles as herbivores on coral reefs. While conducting experimental habitat manipulations to assess the roles of herbivorous reef fishes we observed green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) showing responses that were remarkably similar to those of herbivorous fishes. Reducing the sediment load of the epilithic algal matrix on a coral reef resulted in a forty-fold increase in grazing by green turtles. Hawksbill turtles were also observed to browse transplanted thalli of the macroalga Sargassum swartzii in a coral reef environment. These responses not only show strong parallels to herbivorous reef fishes, but also highlight that marine turtles actively, and intentionally, remove algae from coral reefs. When considering the size and potential historical abundance of marine turtles we suggest that these potentially valuable herbivores may have been lost from many coral reefs before their true importance was understood.
A major interest has recently emerged in understanding how telomere shortening, mechanism triggering cell senescence, is linked to organism ageing and life history traits in wild species. However, the links between telomere length and key history traits such as reproductive performances have received little attention and remain unclear to date. The leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea is a long-lived species showing rapid growth at early stages of life, one of the highest reproductive outputs observed in vertebrates and a dichotomised reproductive pattern related to migrations lasting 2 or 3 years, supposedly associated with different environmental conditions. Here we tested the prediction of blood telomere shortening with age in this species and investigated the relationship between blood telomere length and reproductive performances in leatherback turtles nesting in French Guiana. We found that blood telomere length did not differ between hatchlings and adults. The absence of blood telomere shortening with age may be related to an early high telomerase activity. This telomere-restoring enzyme was formerly suggested to be involved in preventing early telomere attrition in early fast-growing and long-lived species, including squamate reptiles. We found that within one nesting cycle, adult females having performed shorter migrations prior to the considered nesting season had shorter blood telomeres and lower reproductive output. We propose that shorter blood telomeres may result from higher oxidative stress in individuals breeding more frequently (i.e., higher costs of reproduction) and/or restoring more quickly their body reserves in cooler feeding areas during preceding migration (i.e., higher foraging costs). This first study on telomeres in the giant leatherback turtle suggests that blood telomere length predicts not only survival chances, but also reproductive performances. Telomeres may therefore be a promising new tool to evaluate individual reproductive quality which could be useful in such species of conservation concern.
We document a tendency for published estimates of population size in sea turtles to be increasing rather than decreasing across the globe. To examine the population status of the seven species of sea turtle globally, we obtained 299 time series of annual nesting abundance with a total of 4417 annual estimates. The time series ranged in length from 6 to 47 years (mean, 16.2 years). When levels of abundance were summed within regional management units (RMUs) for each species, there were upward trends in 12 RMUs versus downward trends in 5 RMUs. This prevalence of more upward than downward trends was also evident in the individual time series, where we found 95 significant increases in abundance and 35 significant decreases. Adding to this encouraging news for sea turtle conservation, we show that even small sea turtle populations have the capacity to recover, that is, Allee effects appear unimportant. Positive trends in abundance are likely linked to the effective protection of eggs and nesting females, as well as reduced bycatch. However, conservation concerns remain, such as the decline in leatherback turtles in the Eastern and Western Pacific. Furthermore, we also show that, often, time series are too short to identify trends in abundance. Our findings highlight the importance of continued conservation and monitoring efforts that underpin this global conservation success story.
Pan-atlantic analysis of the overlap of a highly migratory species, the leatherback turtle, with pelagic longline fisheries
- Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society
- Published almost 5 years ago
Large oceanic migrants play important roles in ecosystems, yet many species are of conservation concern as a result of anthropogenic threats, of which incidental capture by fisheries is frequently identified. The last large populations of the leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, occur in the Atlantic Ocean, but interactions with industrial fisheries could jeopardize recent positive population trends, making bycatch mitigation a priority. Here, we perform the first pan-Atlantic analysis of spatio-temporal distribution of the leatherback turtle and ascertain overlap with longline fishing effort. Data suggest that the Atlantic probably consists of two regional management units: northern and southern (the latter including turtles breeding in South Africa). Although turtles and fisheries show highly diverse distributions, we highlight nine areas of high susceptibility to potential bycatch (four in the northern Atlantic and five in the southern/equatorial Atlantic) that are worthy of further targeted investigation and mitigation. These are reinforced by reports of leatherback bycatch at eight of these sites. International collaborative efforts are needed, especially from nations hosting regions where susceptibility to bycatch is likely to be high within their exclusive economic zone (northern Atlantic: Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, Spain, USA and Western Sahara; southern Atlantic: Angola, Brazil, Namibia and UK) and from nations fishing in these high-susceptibility areas, including those located in international waters.
Our understanding of global seagrass ecosystems comes largely from regions characterized by human impacts with limited data from habitats defined as notionally pristine. Seagrass assessments also largely focus on shallow-water coastal habitats with comparatively few studies on offshore deep-water seagrasses. We satellite tracked green turtles (Chelonia mydas), which are known to forage on seagrasses, to a remote, pristine deep-water environment in the Western Indian Ocean, the Great Chagos Bank, which lies in the heart of one of the world’s largest marine protected areas (MPAs). Subsequently we used in-situ SCUBA and baited video surveys to survey the day-time sites occupied by turtles and discovered extensive monospecific seagrass meadows of Thalassodendron ciliatum. At three sites that extended over 128 km, mean seagrass cover was 74% (mean range 67-88% across the 3 sites at depths to 29 m. The mean species richness of fish in seagrass meadows was 11 species per site (mean range 8-14 across the 3 sites). High fish abundance (e.g. Siganus sutor: mean MaxN.site-1 = 38.0, SD = 53.7, n = 5) and large predatory shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) (mean MaxN.site-1 = 1.5, SD = 0.4, n = 5) were recorded at all sites. Such observations of seagrass meadows with large top predators, are limited in the literature. Given that the Great Chagos Bank extends over approximately 12,500 km2and many other large deep submerged banks exist across the world’s oceans, our results suggest that deep-water seagrass may be far more abundant than previously suspected.
Fisheries bycatch of marine animals has been linked to population declines of multiple species, including many sea turtles. Altering the visual cues associated with fishing gear may reduce sea turtle bycatch. We examined the effectiveness of illuminating gillnets with ultraviolet (UV) light-emitting diodes for reducing green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) interactions. We found that the mean sea turtle capture rate was reduced by 39.7% in UV-illuminated nets compared with nets without illumination. In collaboration with commercial fishermen, we tested UV net illumination in a bottom-set gillnet fishery in Baja California, Mexico. We did not find any difference in overall target fish catch rate or market value between net types. These findings suggest that UV net illumination may have applications in coastal and pelagic gillnet fisheries to reduce sea turtle bycatch.
- Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society
- Published almost 5 years ago
Fisheries bycatch is a critical source of mortality for rapidly declining populations of leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea. We integrated use-intensity distributions for 135 satellite-tracked adult turtles with longline fishing effort to estimate predicted bycatch risk over space and time in the Pacific Ocean. Areas of predicted bycatch risk did not overlap for eastern and western Pacific nesting populations, warranting their consideration as distinct management units with respect to fisheries bycatch. For western Pacific nesting populations, we identified several areas of high risk in the north and central Pacific, but greatest risk was adjacent to primary nesting beaches in tropical seas of Indo-Pacific islands, largely confined to several exclusive economic zones under the jurisdiction of national authorities. For eastern Pacific nesting populations, we identified moderate risk associated with migrations to nesting beaches, but the greatest risk was in the South Pacific Gyre, a broad pelagic zone outside national waters where management is currently lacking and may prove difficult to implement. Efforts should focus on these predicted hotspots to develop more targeted management approaches to alleviate leatherback bycatch.
Terrestrial plants use an array of animals as vectors for dispersal, however little is known of biotic dispersal of marine angiosperms such as seagrasses. Our study in the Great Barrier Reef confirms for the first time that dugongs (Dugong dugon) and green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) assist seagrass dispersal. We demonstrate that these marine mega-herbivores consume and pass in faecal matter viable seeds for at least three seagrass species (Zostera muelleri, Halodule uninervis and Halophila decipiens). One to two seagrass seeds per g DW of faecal matter were found during the peak of the seagrass reproductive season (September to December), with viability on excretion of 9.13% ± 4.61% (SE). Using population estimates for these mega-herbivores, and data on digestion time (hrs), average daily movement (km h) and numbers of viable seagrass seeds excreted (per g DW), we calculated potential seagrass seed dispersal distances. Dugongs and green sea turtle populations within this region can disperse >500,000 viable seagrass seeds daily, with a maximum dispersal distance of approximately 650 km. Biotic dispersal of tropical seagrass seeds by dugongs and green sea turtles provides a large-scale mechanism that enhances connectivity among seagrass meadows, and aids in resilience and recovery of these coastal habitats.
We investigated the extent that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill potentially affected oceanic-stage sea turtles from populations across the Atlantic. Within an ocean-circulation model, particles were backtracked from the Gulf of Mexico spill site to determine the probability of young turtles arriving in this area from major nesting beaches. The abundance of turtles in the vicinity of the oil spill was derived by forward-tracking particles from focal beaches and integrating population size, oceanic-stage duration and stage-specific survival rates. Simulations indicated that 321 401 (66 199-397 864) green (Chelonia mydas), loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) turtles were likely within the spill site. These predictions compared favourably with estimates from in-water observations recently made available to the public (though our initial predictions for Kemp’s ridley were substantially lower than in-water estimates, better agreement was obtained with modifications to mimic behaviour of young Kemp’s ridley turtles in the northern Gulf). Simulations predicted 75.2% (71.9-76.3%) of turtles came from Mexico, 14.8% (11-18%) from Costa Rica, 5.9% (4.8-7.9%) from countries in northern South America, 3.4% (2.4-3.5%) from the United States and 1.6% (0.6-2.0%) from West African countries. Thus, the spill’s impacts may extend far beyond the current focus on the northern Gulf of Mexico.