Chapter 2. Vulnerability of Marine Turtles to Climate Change

Adv Mar Biol. 2009;56:151-211. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2881(09)56002-6.


Marine turtles are generally viewed as vulnerable to climate change because of the role that temperature plays in the sex determination of embryos, their long life history, long age-to-maturity and their highly migratory nature. Extant species of marine turtles probably arose during the mid-late Jurassic period (180-150 Mya) so have survived past shifts in climate, including glacial periods and warm events and therefore have some capacity for adaptation. The present-day rates of increase of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and associated temperature changes, are very rapid; the capacity of marine turtles to adapt to this rapid change may be compromised by their relatively long generation times. We consider the evidence and likely consequences of present-day trends of climate change on marine turtles. Impacts are likely to be complex and may be positive as well as negative. For example, rising sea levels and increased storm intensity will negatively impact turtle nesting beaches; however, extreme storms can also lead to coastal accretion. Alteration of wind patterns and ocean currents will have implications for juveniles and adults in the open ocean. Warming temperatures are likely to impact directly all turtle life stages, such as the sex determination of embryos in the nest and growth rates. Warming of 2 degrees C could potentially result in a large shift in sex ratios towards females at many rookeries, although some populations may be resilient to warming if female biases remain within levels where population success is not impaired. Indirectly, climate change is likely to impact turtles through changes in food availability. The highly migratory nature of turtles and their ability to move considerable distances in short periods of time should increase their resilience to climate change. However, any such resilience of marine turtles to climate change is likely to be severely compromised by other anthropogenic influences. Development of coastlines may threaten nesting beaches and reproductive success, and pollution and eutrophication is threatening important coastal foraging habitats for turtles worldwide. Exploitation and bycatch in other fisheries has seriously reduced marine turtle populations. The synergistic effects of other human-induced stressors may seriously reduce the capacity of some turtle populations to adapt to the current rates of climate change. Conservation recommendations to increase the capacity of marine turtle populations to adapt to climate change include increasing population resilience, for example by the use of turtle exclusion devices in fisheries, protection of nesting beaches from the viewpoints of both conservation and coastal management, and increased international conservation efforts to protect turtles in regions where there is high unregulated or illegal fisheries (including turtle harvesting). Increasing research efforts on the critical knowledge gaps of processes influencing population numbers, such as identifying ocean foraging hotspots or the processes that underlie the initiation of nesting migrations and selection of breeding areas, will inform adaptive management in a changing climate.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animal Migration
  • Animals
  • Climate Change*
  • Ecosystem
  • Female
  • Nesting Behavior / physiology
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Temperature
  • Turtles / physiology*
  • Weather