Sea turtles swimming – Courtesy: Shutterstock – Image by Gail Johnson
Florida’s sea turtles are struggling with a unique problem made even worse by climate change: recent heat waves have caused the sand on certain beaches to become so warm that nearly every turtle born was female.
“The frightening thing is the last four summers in Florida have been the hottest summers on record,” said Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, a city in the Florida Keys, which is a string of tropical islands that stretch from the southern end of the Sunshine State.
“Scientists that are studying sea turtle hatchlings and eggs have found no boy sea turtles, so only female sea turtles for the past four years,” Zirkelbach said, whose turtle center has operated since 1986.
The pattern is only one of several indications that show the climate catastrophe is disrupting the natural ecosystems of the planet and progressing too quickly for many species to adapt.
The sand’s temperature influences the sex of the hatchlings when a female turtle digs a nest on a beach. Zirkelbach said an Australian study showed very similar statistics–“99% of new sea turtle babies are female.”
The National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration claims that the sex of sea turtles and alligators is determined by the temperature of developing eggs rather than during fertilization (NOAA).
“If a turtle’s eggs incubate below 81.86 Fahrenheit (27.7 Celsius), the turtle hatchlings will be male, whereas if they incubate above 88.8 F (31C), they will be female,” according to NOAA’S National Ocean Service website.
“Over the years, you’re going to see a sharp decline in their population because we just don’t have the genetic diversity,” said Melissa Rosales Rodriguez, a sea turtle keeper at the recently opened a turtle hospital at the Miami Zoo. “We don’t have the male-to-female ratio needed in order to be able to have successful breeding sessions.”
The two turtle hospitals are also fighting tumors in turtles known as FP, which stands for fibropapillomatosis. These tumors can cause death if not treated and are very contagious to other turtles.
Zirkelbach recognizes the need to preserve every turtle she can and establish more rehabilitation facilities because the future of turtles is impacted by climate change and the disease is so pervasive.
“The Turtle Hospital was the first. But, sadly and fortunately, there’s a need all throughout Florida.”
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Chris began his writing as a hobby while attending Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. Today he and his wife live in the Orlando area with their three children and dog.