Climate change could cause Leatherback turtle populations in Costa Rica to collapse by 2100

By Tierney Smith

Eastern Pacific populations of Leatherback turtles could drop 75% by the end of the century as a result of climate change, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change.

The study examines turtle populations nesting in Costa Rica and reveals that the death of turtle eggs and hatchlings buried in hotter and drier beaches could exacerbate existing threats and potentially wipe out the population entirely.

A leatherback sea turtle hatchling crawls towards the ocean (Jolene Bertoldi/ZA Photos)

Critically endangered Leatherback turtles have faced historical – and ongoing – threats from egg poaching on beaches, while juvenile and adult turtles face being caught up in larger fishing operations.

While some steps have been taken to reduce these losses – for example beach protection – the sensitivity from Leatherbacks to climate variability could impede populations’ recovery.

The researchers examined three separate models of population dynamics – two based on sensitivity to beach climate and one to ocean climate – against projected models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, modelling El Nino patterns.

With climate predictions indicating that warmer, drier years will be more frequent in Central America over the next century the researchers expect to see a 7% decline per decade, or 75% overall by 2100.

Dr James Spotila, co-author of the report said for populations to recover successfully “the challenge is to produce as many good hatchlings as possible. That requires us to be hands-on and manipulate the beach to make sure that happens.”

The study already begins to consider options for such approaches including watering and shading turtle nests to mitigate the impact of hot, dry beach conditions.

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