Reconstructed and projected beach temperatures reveal where flatback turtles are most at risk from climate change

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Nest temperature is the predominant driver of emergence success and primary sex ratios in sea turtles, with female offspring produced at higher temperatures due to temperature-dependent sex determination. However, emergence success and primary sex ratios are unfeasible to measure at scale, making methods to estimate these life-history traits from predicted sand temperatures highly desirable for long-term conservation planning in the context of climate change. To address this, we used a mechanistic microclimate model to predict hourly sand temperatures, over 32 nesting seasons since 1986, at 402 West Australian beaches supporting nesting by flatback turtles (Natator depressus). Predicted sand temperatures indicated that ∼70% of these beaches carried a 'very low' to 'intermediate' risk of subjecting embryos to thermal stress. By combining these temperature predictions with a physiological model, current and future emergence success and sex ratios were projected for ten different beaches spanning a range of thermal microclimates, under various climate change scenarios. Under recent climate conditions, emergence success averaged 76%, but declined to 63% and 37% with a 2°C and 4°C increase in air temperature, respectively. The sex ratios of hatchlings varied by location, but extremely skewed sex ratios were anticipated in a 4°C warming scenario. Our projections reveal that 'high risk' nesting beaches will regularly experience clutch failure as climate change progresses, while cooler beaches offer long-term nesting potential and require protection from additional anthropogenic impacts. These projections, covering an entire genetic stock, supply demographic data for assessing extinction risks and this method can be applied to sea turtle populations worldwide.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02866
JournalGlobal Ecology and Conservation
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024

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