Warmer oceans will put the chill on sea turtle behavior, causing the endangered animals to stop basking on beaches within the next century.
That’s the surprising take-away from a new analysis of turtle surveys and satellite data published Jan. 14, 2015 in the journal Biology Letters.
The big green turtles–adults weigh 240 to 420 pounds and have carapaces spanning three to four feet–gather on sunny beaches around the world to raise their body temperatures. The cooler the ocean, the more they bask.
But the analysis–a close look at six years of turtle surveys and 24 years of satellite data–suggests the behavior will end globally by 2102 if global warming trends continue. In Hawaii, the primary focus of the new research, it could end as soon as 2039.
“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,” Dr. Kyle S. Van Houtan, adjunct associate professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in Durham, N.C., said in a written statement.
As the endangered turtles cut back on basking, Van Houtan told The Huffington Post in an email, they may experience immune system problems, delayed maturity, and slower growth.
But he said there was no indication the basking cutback would affect the turtles’ survival.
Van Houtan said he and his collaborators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Ioannina in Greece were “impressed by how climate influences seemingly every aspect of sea turtles’ lives. Understanding this today will aid us greatly in preparing and adapting for a changed future.”
Sounds like a sea change for sure–and a rather sad one.