Loggerhead turtle nests facing new threats

Loggerhead turtle nests facing new threats

From plastic bags to boats, sea turtles face a lot of threats in South Florida.

And thanks to rehab centers like Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Jupiter, the turtles have continued to be a huge part of our eco-system.

But new research says there are more threats than ever before, so local researchers are working overtime this summer to check hundreds of sea turtle nests.

They say according to their data, rising sand and air temperatures over the past couple of years are literally "cooking" turtle eggs before they can even hatch.

Data manager Sarah Hirsch of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center is spending all summer digging holes on the beach.

"Getting to work on the beach every day isn't too shabby!" she said in an interview Friday morning.

She's not looking for gold, but for new insight into how our environment is impacting the endangered sea turtle population.

"This is one of the most important nesting grounds in the United States," she said. "One of the things we've noticed in the past few years that it's gotten very hot and dry in the summer months."

Sea turtle eggs are very sensitive to temperature changes. When the sand is too hot, the eggs don't stand a chance.

"There is a lethal temperature and so with these hot and dry summers we've had recently...that's definitely a cause for concern," said Hirsch.

2016 was one of the worst loggerhead egg counts they've seen in years.

"Unfortunately, last year was again just so hot and dry that our emergence success dropped down to 46 percent," said Hirsch.

Hirsch fears the trend continues this year, which is why her team is counting hatched eggs every morning.

"So we wait three days before we dig and inventory what's down here," she said.

While counting a particular nest on Juno Beach Friday, she found the nest had 114 eggs. All but two hatched.

"Very successful nest. Unfortunately, those hatchlings, once they've gotten out of the nest, their chances are not great," she said.

The climate also impacts the sex of the turtle, so male to female ratios can be uneven.

"The sex of the turtle is dependent on the temperature that the eggs are incubating in," Hirsch said.

Marguerite Koch, a Florida Atlantic University marine biology and ecology graduate professor said data on rising sea levels show potential threats to where turtles can nest.

"Even though we live in South Florida, we need to look north and south. North to Greenland's ice sheet and south to the Antarctic ice sheet," she said.

For now, loggerhead researchers will keep an eye on these nests.

"And make sure that we know these turtles can survive in the future," said Hirsch.

Researchers are also checking to see if the turtles are adapting in any way. Are they showing up farther north where it's cooler or earlier than ever before when it's not as hot? They hope research this year -- which ends in October -- will answer that question.

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