Jan 25, 2015 08:54 PM EST
Climate Change: Warming Seas May Decrease Sea Turtle Basking
Green sea turtles may stop Hauling out on beaches around the world within a century due to rising sea temperatures, a new study suggests.
Basking on sun-warmed beaches helps the threatened turtles regulate their body temperatures and may aid their immune systems and digestion.
Researchers from Duke University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and the University of Ioannina in Greece have found the turtles bask more often each year when sea surface temperatures drop.
"By comparing turtle basking counts with sea surface temperatures, we found that green turtles tend not to bask when local winter sea surface temperatures stay above 23 degrees Celsius," Kyle Van Houtan, lead researcher and adjunct associate professor at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a statement.
If global warming trends continue, this behavior may cease globally by 2102, the study projects. In Hawaii, where the study was primarily focused, green turtles might stop basking much earlier, by 2039.
For the study, scientists analyzed six years of turtle count data collected daily by the Hawaiian nonprofit M?lama na Honu on Laniakea Beach in Oahu. The counts showed regular, seasonal fluctuations in the number of turtles basking on the beach. These fluctuations correlated with sea temperatures at Laniakea, indicating that sea turtles bask more when waters are cooler.
The scientists then compared these fluctuations in temperature and basking to growth marks in the humerus bone of several green turtles. They found that the growth lines occurred at the same time of year when turtles bask more, between February and April.
The turtles' growth lines are similar to tree rings in that they indicate periods of stress for the organism, said Van Houtan, who is also a scientist in NOAA's Turtle Research Program. In trees, growth rings can indicate winter, dry seasons, or periods of drought. In green turtles, the lines seem to reflect periods when seas are colder and body temperatures are consequently lower, prompting the turtles to haul out on beaches to warm in the sun.
More research is needed to fully understand the importance of basking and the effect climate change will have on basking behaviors of green turtle populations around the world. said Van Houtan.
The findings are detailed in the journal Biology Letters.
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