Climate change turning sea turtle babies female

If we don't actively combat climate change we may lose green sea turtles forever.   REUTERS  Bazuki Muhammad

Unlike humans and many other species that develop into males and females based on sex chromosomes, green sea turtles' embryos develop sex depending on the temperature outside of the embryo's egg. When eggs hatch from sand that averaged 29ºC (84ºF) over the incubation period, they produce a 50-50 mix of males and females. At the southern end of the reef, 65-69 percent of turtles are female, which no doubt makes for some very happy males, and could actually improve breeding prospects compared to a 50-50 ratio in a species where some males mate with many females.

The sex of a green turtle is influenced by the temperature of the surrounding area of the nesting sites (rookeries) in which the fertilised eggs are lain.

Genetic and hormone analysis of the turtles in the northern and southern parts of the Great Barrier Reef showed 99 percent of young sea turtles nesting on warmer northern beaches were female.

The proportion of female hatchlings increases when nests are in warmer sands, while cooler temperatures is known to produce more male turtles.

That was an increase in more females being born over time, because the adult population has an 86.7 per cent female bias.

In one population towards the southern end of the reef, the turtles skewed 65-69% female, according to the researchers.While that's bad for that populatio' survival rate, it's not almost as alarming as what the researchers found in a genetically distinct population in the warmer areas toward the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. It's one of the largest populations of the endangered species left, with an estimated 200,000 nesting females, according to the researchers. The reason, according to the study's authors, has everything to do with rising temperatures.

"With warming global temperatures and most sea turtle populations naturally producing offspring above the pivotal temperature, it is clear that climate change poses a serious threat to the persistence of these populations", the study's authors wrote.

David Owens, a professor emeritus from the College of Charleston in SC, was not involved in the new study but said he has dreamed of doing such research for years.

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This is extreme - like capital letters extreme, exclamation point extreme.

The gender shift has been noticed before by people who study hatchlings, said Jeanette Wyneken, a sea-turtle expert and professor at Florida Atlantic University, who was not involved in the new research.

And green sea turtles play a crucial role in keeping the ecosystem around them healthy, primarily by chomping down on seagrass beds.

"Is this species liable to go extinct?" "If this happens everywhere, we'll probably see a slow decline".

"That transitional range, from 100 percent males to 100 percent females, spans a very narrow band of only a couple of degrees", Jensen said.

Scientists caught green turtles at the Howick Group of islands where both populations forage. "I sure hope so and I'm sure there will be", Ms Allen said.

Mr Limpus said the study was significant, but more research was needed into green turtle populations in other regions and whether any other factors, aside from global warming, were contributing to the female population bias. It is not a trend backed up by real-world data.

Sea turtles tend to lay their eggs on the same beaches where they were hatchlings decades earlier, so they can not quickly adapt to warming temperatures, Owens said.

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