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Climate change poses critical threat to hawksbill turtles

Critically endangered hawksbill turtles could be the next animal to see their existence threatened by climate change, according to a new report.

They’re not the only turtle species at risk as global air temperatures rise, but they do face a few unique challenges, according to Florida State University researchers.

Along with warmer air temperatures, increased rain and solar radiation could have a significant effect on hatching success at the beaches where hawksbill turtles make their nests.

“Marine turtles have been around for millions of years, and during this time they have adapted to substantial climatic changes,” co-author Dr. Mariana Fuentes said in a press release. “In the past they have adapted by shifting their nesting grounds and nesting season to align with more favorable conditions. However, increasing impacts to nesting habitats from coastal construction, storms and sea level rise are jeopardizing their ability to adapt.”

The research team from FSU’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science analyzed more than 5,000 nesting sites on five beaches in Brazil. Those are the sites where the majority of the hawksbill turtles prefer to nest.

The scientists looked at five factors – rainfall, air temperature, humidity, wind speed and solar radiation – to create a model that will show possible effects of climate change on the hawksbill turtles.

“Research is lacking on how climate change may influence hawksbills, and this population in particular,” said Natalie Montero, the former FSU graduate student who led the study. “We chose to study how climate change may impact hatchling production because significant changes to how many baby marine turtles are born can dramatically alter population stability.”

The researchers found that between rising air temperatures and rainfall, hawksbill turtles could see an 11 percent drop in hatching success by 2100. The warmth could cause sand temperatures to rise enough to damage the eggs, and rainfall could suffocate the embryos, they said. Additionally, both could cause nests to cave in, they said.

“Humans can help marine turtles in many ways,” Montero said. “Reducing coastal construction and protecting more coastal habitat will help ensure present and future nesting habitat is available. Reducing human impacts on dune structure and beach vegetation is also important. Additionally, reducing trash and microplastics on the beach can create a higher quality nesting and incubating environment.”

The study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE. Funding was provided by the Sea Turtle License Plate Grants Program.

By Kyla Cathey, Contributing Writer

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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