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Title: Ecology of marine turtles under climate change
Author: Stokes, Kimberley Laura
ISNI:       0000 0004 5916 7753
Awarding Body: University of Exeter
Current Institution: University of Exeter
Date of Award: 2014
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Climate change threatens to disrupt biological systems around the globe, sparking debate over natural capacity for adaptation in a fragmented landscape. Marine turtles are evolutionarily ancient and have survived millions of years of prehistoric climate change, but are threatened by the rapidity of modern warming and a history of severe overexploitation that has left most populations depleted. This thesis explores a nesting aggregation of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) in northern Cyprus, where a longitudinal programme of both intensive and extensive monitoring enables insight into individual and population level parameters and processes. Nesting on the two coastlines covered by this project is in the early stages of recovery, possibly in response to exhaustive nest protection efforts over the last twenty years. Saturation tagging at one key site allows us to confirm that recruitment of new breeders is an important driver of this trend, and that average clutch frequency has remained stable around three nests per female per year, validating nest-count derived abundance estimates at a regional scale. Concern has been raised, however, regarding recent changes in fishing practices which are impacting the local juvenile neritic phase, which may have a lagged effect on the recovery of this nesting population. A collaborative tracking effort including all other countries with major nesting in the Mediterranean allows us to identify major foraging grounds for this species, with two hotspots accounting for >50% of tracked individuals, as well as coastal and pelagic seasonal corridors of high use. Bycatch levels and mortality rates for turtles in these key areas are largely unknown and should be prioritised for investigation. Hatchling sex ratios from the main study beach are extremely female-biased (estimated 97% female for the twenty year period 1993-2012). A 1oC rise in average incubation temperatures threatens near complete hatchling feminisation on this beach, whilst a 2oC rise could reduce hatch success to less than 50%. Thermal effects on hatchling morphometrics are evident, with a 1oC rise in temperature reducing average length, width and weight by 1%, 2% and 3% respectively. More favourable incubation conditions were found early in the season, in deeper nests laid by larger females, and on beaches of lighter sand. In contrast, adult sex ratios at the main site are male-biased, posing questions regarding sex-specific survival rates and optimal hatchling sex ratios. A phenological shift towards earlier nesting is demonstrated for the first time in this species, and could potentially ameliorate warming effects. Carry-over climate forcing effects from the foraging ground influence the breeding frequency of individuals, driving population level responses in annual magnitude of nesting. This work emphasises the utility and necessity of long-term individual-based monitoring programmes in elucidating population trends and climate responses in iteroparous species with non-annual breeding.
Supervisor: Godley, Brendan Sponsor: European Social Fund
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: conservation ; marine ecology ; marine turtle ; sea turtle ; green turtle ; Chelonia ; Chelonia mydas ; population monitoring ; migratory corridor ; foraging grounds ; sex ratio ; climate change ; climate forcing