By Salome Garcia, environmental advocate and research volunteer at Florida State University
Turtles are often seen as the poster child for ocean conservation. Tourists travel from all over the world for a small opportunity to see one in Florida’s wild. As a heavy eco-tourism destination, our state – from the tip of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to the North Florida Forgotten Coast – is ideal for catching a glimpse of loggerhead turtles in their natural habitat.
Tragically, that wonderful opportunity may be fading because loggerhead turtle populations are declining all over the world. While researchers are studying all types of reasons for this decline, there is one major factor: Turtle populations are being impacted by rising temperatures caused by climate change. Typically males hatch in cooler temperatures, while females thrive in warmer temperatures. In Florida, researchers such as Dr. Mariana Fuentes have spent summer after summer tagging and researching female turtles on the sandy beaches of Florida and measuring egg hatching success and ratios.
Last July, I had the opportunity to assist Dr. Fuentes’ team in this important scientific endeavor. The “headquarters,” where a dozen graduate students and volunteers were sleeping and regrouping every morning, was the St. George’s Island fire station floor. Each day we would hear from grad students and experts alike about incredible marine science and biology research before heading out to grab some ice cream and embark on a long, overnight walk down the sandy beaches. During that trek along the island shore, which takes roughly 8-10 hours, the hope is to find just one or two of those beautiful loggerhead turtles.
This was a challenge. We had to dodge ghost crabs and friendly sand creatures with every step. To see the turtles in the dark, we relied on nothing but a dim red light to avoid confusing the turtles. We were trained in identifying turtle tracks, one of the best ways to find nesting mothers along the beach. If we were lucky we would discover a set of tracks and, after following them, find either a mother loggerhead or a green turtle laying her eggs. Once we found a turtle, the graduate and doctoral students would take measurements and record the turtle's location.
While this overnight journey was focused on studying the millions of creatures that live on turtles’ shells, the information captured in projects like this contributes to the growing knowledge on turtle populations, locations, and patterns impacted by climate change. Research led by Dr. Fuentes suggests that when turtles lay eggs in warmer temperatures, they produce female hatchlings overwhelmingly more often than male hatchlings. This imbalance makes maintaining loggerhead populations at a health level very difficult. Even worse, as water and beach temperatures continue to rise, this problem will only grow.
There is still much we don’t know about turtles, especially male turtles since they do not return to shore to lay any nests, but we do know that changing how we approach our climate is necessary to protect these majestic creatures. By prioritizing climate solutions and increasing funding for critical research, we can better understand how to aid turtle population recovery and make sure that these gentle creatures continue to grace Florida’s shores for generations to come.