Warming ocean water is turning 99 percent of these sea turtles female

Rising temperatures are skewing population ratios toward extreme imbalance

green sea turtle

TURTLE TROUBLE  Green sea turtle populations in parts of the Great Barrier Reef are becoming increasingly female because their eggs are being incubated at higher temperatures due to warming ocean waters. 

Howcheng/Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

Warming waters are turning some sea turtle populations female — to the extreme. More than 99 percent of young green turtles born on beaches along the northern Great Barrier Reef are female, researchers report January 8 in Current Biology. If that imbalance in sex continues, the overall population could shrink.

Green sea turtle embryos develop as male or female depending on the temperature at which they incubate in sand. Scientists have known that warming ocean waters are skewing sea turtle populations toward having more females, but quantifying the imbalance has been hard.

Researchers analyzed hormone levels in turtles collected on the Great Barrier Reef (off the northeastern coast of Australia) to determine their sex, and then used genetic data to link individuals to the beaches where the animals originated. That two-pronged approach allowed the scientists to estimate the ratio of males to females born at different sites.

The sex ratio in the overall population is “nothing out of the ordinary,” with roughly one juvenile male for every four juvenile females, says study coauthor Michael Jensen, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in La Jolla, Calif. But breaking the data down by the turtles’ region of origin revealed worrisome results. In the cooler southern Great Barrier Reef, 67 percent of hatched juveniles were female. But more than 99 percent of young turtles hatched in sand soaked by warmer waters in the northern Great Barrier Reef were female — with one male for every 116 females. That imbalance has increased over time: 86 percent of the adults born in the area more than 20 years ago were female.

It’s unclear what the long-term impact of such a strong skew will be, but it’s probably not good news for the turtles. Sea turtle populations can get by with fewer males than females (SN: 3/4/17, p. 16), but scientists aren’t sure how many is too few. And while turtles can adapt their behavior, such as laying eggs in cooler places, the animals’ instinct is to nest in the same spot they were born, which works against such a change.

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