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Projected response of an endangered marine turtle population to climate change


Assessing the potential impacts of climate change on individual species and populations is essential for the stewardship of ecosystems and biodiversity. Critically endangered leatherback turtles in the eastern Pacific Ocean are excellent candidates for such an assessment because their sensitivity to contemporary climate variability has been substantially studied1,2,3,4. If incidental fisheries mortality is eliminated, this population still faces the challenge of recovery in a rapidly changing climate. Here we combined an Earth system model5, climate model projections assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change6 and a population dynamics model to estimate a 7% per decade decline in the Costa Rica nesting population over the twenty-first century. Whereas changes in ocean conditions had a small effect on the population, the 2.5 °C warming of the nesting beach was the primary driver of the decline through reduced hatching success and hatchling emergence rate. Hatchling sex ratio did not substantially change. Adjusting nesting phenology or changing nesting sites may not entirely prevent the decline, but could offset the decline rate. However, if future observations show a long-term decline in hatching success and emergence rate, anthropogenic climate mitigation of nests (for example, shading, irrigation)7,8 may be able to preserve the nesting population.

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Figure 1: Biological and climatic projections under the IPCC SRES A2 in the eastern equatorial Pacific and in northwestern Costa Rica.
Figure 2: Nesting population projections under the IPCC SRES A2.
Figure 3: Surface air temperature and precipitation projections under the IPCC SRES A2 in the area encompassing the four main leatherback nesting sites in the eastern Pacific.
Figure 4: Nesting phenology of leatherbacks in relation to the local climate at Playa Grande, Costa Rica.


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Financial support was provided by the Cooperative Institute for Climate Science, Earthwatch Institute, The Betz Chair Endowment of Drexel University and The Leatherback Trust. We thank R. Piedra, C. Padilla and M. Boza for their support to leatherback conservation in Costa Rica. We thank R. Rykaczewski, R. Stouffer andJ. Dunne for reviewing previous versions of this manuscript. We thank J. Dunne and J. John for providing the GFDL-ESM 2.1 simulations used in this study and we thank G. Vecchi and A. Wittenberg for analytical advice. We acknowledge the modelling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison and the WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling for their roles in making available the WCRP CMIP3 multimodel data set. Support of this data set is provided by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. The NCEP reanalysis air temperature data and GPCP precipitation data was provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSD, Boulder, Colorado, USA, from their web site (

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V.S. formulated the hypotheses, experiments, CLIMPOP model and conducted the simulations and analyses. C.S. assisted with the CLIMPOP model formulation, simulations, and analyses. P.S.T. led the nesting-beach field study in Costa Rica and formulated the hatchling recruitment component of the nesting-beach model. J.S. and F.P. also led the field campaign in Costa Rica. V.S. and C.S. wrote the manuscript and all authors discussed the analyses and manuscript text.

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Correspondence to Vincent S. Saba.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Saba, V., Stock, C., Spotila, J. et al. Projected response of an endangered marine turtle population to climate change. Nature Clim Change 2, 814–820 (2012).

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