Leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, are the largest of all sea turtles, tipping the scales at up to 900 kg. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback lacks a carapace covered with scutes; instead its carapace is covered by thick leathery skin that is embedded with small bones forming seven ridges running along its back. This turtle has a wonderful set of anatomical and physiological adaptations, such as huge flippers and an efficient circulatory system, that make it a powerful swimmer and deep ocean diver. Males spend their entire lives at sea, while females usually return to their birthplace along sandy beaches to dig nests and lay eggs.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of conserving awesome animals in our world, some populations of leatherbacks are declining rapidly, and many are now listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List. Pilar Santidrian Tomillo wanted to know why leatherback populations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean have declined so much in recent years. Working at Las Baulas National Park in northwestern Costa Rica since 1993, Tomillo and her colleagues have tagged 1927 nesting females so they could measure survival and return rates to the nesting shoreline. They discovered an alarming trend of sharp decline as described by the graph below.
Tomillo and her colleagues knew that many leatherbacks were killed every year as a consequence of bycatch – capture by fishing nets or lines cast by fishermen who are targeting other species. But leatherback bycatch is very difficult to monitor accurately, as few fishermen keep accurate records of dead turtles, and turtles may die after being entangled and subsequently freed. The researchers also suspected that climate variability could influence leatherback population size. El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a large-scale atmospheric system that affects global climate. In leatherback foraging areas, El Niño years are associated with high atmospheric pressure and warm sea temperatures, while La Niña years are associated with low atmospheric pressure and cool sea temperatures. Importantly, cool sea temperatures stimulate upwelling of nutrient-rich water to the surface, increasing production of phytoplankton, thereby increasing the abundance of jellyfish and other favored leatherback food items. So the researchers hypothesized that the leatherbacks might do better in La Niña years than in El Niño years.
But what do they mean by doing better? There are two important factors influencing population growth: survival and reproduction. Either one could be affected by climate. By recapturing marked individuals, Tomillo and her colleagues were able to measure both survival and one important aspect of reproduction, which is how often females return to lay eggs. Reproduction is a very energetically demanding process for leatherback females, as they must migrate long distances (often thousands of kilometers) from their feeding grounds, and their eggs are large and plentiful, so females require a huge investment in resources to reproduce. Consequently, at Tomillo’s field site, only 4.5% of females reproduced in consecutive years, while the average interval between reproductive events was 3.65 years.
Let’s consider leatherback survival. As you can see from the data below, annual survival probability is very variable from year to year, ranging from about 30% in 2012 to near 100% in several years. Disturbingly, the long-term trend is downward, and the overall mean adult survival rate of 0.78 is very low in comparison to viable populations of sea turtles. If survival rates do not increase, the future is very bleak for this population.
How does climate variation influence survival and reproduction? The Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI) measures ENSO strength, with positive numbers (X-axis on graphs below) indicating El Niño years (with poor food availability), and negative numbers indicating La Niña years (with good food availability). The researchers found no climate effect on survival (top graph below), but a high reproductive rate associated with La Niña events (bottom graph below).
The question remains, why is survival so low? Climate does not appear to affect survival, so that brings us back to human impact. Tomillo and her colleagues recommend reducing bycatch levels and implementing beach conservation measures to eradicate egg poaching. They also warn us that increases in global temperatures reduce egg hatching success, and pose a severe stress to this and other critically endangered leatherback populations throughout the world.
note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Santidrian Tomillo, P., N. J. Robinson, A. Sanz‐Aguilar, J. R. Spotila, F. V. Paladino, and G. Tavecchia. 2017. High and variable mortality of leatherback turtles reveal possible anthropogenic impacts. Ecology 98: 2170–2179. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.