Painted Turtles and Climate Change
Baby painted turtles heading back to the water (Photo: Rory Telemeco)
Climate change is impacting various animal species around the world, but painted turtles may face a particularly strange and formidable challenge. Host Steve Curwood talks turtles with Iowa State biologist Rory Telemeco.
CURWOOD: Predators and careless humans aren’t the only dangers that turtles face – there are some more existential dangers, including global warming. Researchers from Iowa State University say there’s a danger climate change will warp the sex ratio of Painted turtles. Biologist Rory Telemeco says that’s because of the way the sex of turtles is determined.
TELEMECO: Painted turtles, along with many other reptiles, and some fishes and a few other things, have a different form of sex determination than what we generally think of in mammals. Mammals have their genotypes, their chromosomes determine whether or not you are male or female. We have XYs produce males, XX produces females. However in many of these reptiles, such as these turtles, the temperature during development, during a fairly short window of about a month, during the middle third of development, determines whether or not the offspring will be male or female with cool nests producing males and warm nests producing females.
CURWOOD: So what you’re saying is that warmer temperatures could mean more females?
TELEMECO: Potentially, though there are a number of ways that turtles could potentially buffer themselves from changing climate. We know these turtles have been around for a very long time. As a group, turtles have been on earth for 200 million years. The earth's changed a lot over that period. So they have to have some potential to respond to environmental changes. The question is, what avenues might work, and what avenues might not.
CURWOOD: So what did you do to determine the impact that climate change could have on the Painted turtles sex ratio?
TELEMECO: Well, the primary thing we were trying to get at, we wanted to know, will nesting earlier in the year be a mechanism that could buffer these populations from climate change? We know that shifts in the onset of reproductive events, really any major event in the life of an animal - these are called phenological changes - are changing really, really rapidly. That's basically what we see when we go out and we try to measure how is climate change affecting organisms. We see flowers blooming earlier. We see leaves bursting earlier on trees. Birds and butterflies are migrating earlier. Frogs are singing earlier, and things like turtles and lizards are nesting earlier in the year. It’s a really common response. And this leads to the question, well, are these organisms buffering themselves from climate change by nesting and doing their things earlier in the year when it’s a little cooler? We really wanted to know whether or not that was going to work. And so, we looked at these turtles, we have 25 years of research on a single population of Painted turtles in the Mississippi River. We took all of that information. We put it into a mathematical model, and what we actually found is that nesting earlier in the year by itself does very, very little good. If that’s the only thing that the turtles had at their disposal, to try to sort of protect themselves from climate change, it would only buffer them to about a degree increase in temperature. Any more than that, it would have no buffering effect. We’d expect to see complete 100 percent female sex ratios in these populations, and potentially even really high mortality in the nests of these populations as well.
CURWOOD: So you’re talking about one degree Centigrade?
TELEMECO: Yeah. We’re actually expecting four or more degrees Centigrade increases in the midwest over the next century. So this mechanism by itself really seems like it’s going to be ineffective.
CURWOOD: And why is that?
TELEMECO: Well, if you think about how temperature changes over the course of a year -- it gets warmer in the spring and then levels off in the summer and gets cooler in the fall. You can think of a week in spring, temperature changes pretty rapidly, from Monday to Friday, you might have a major difference in temperature. In mid-July, from Monday to Friday, it might be pretty much exactly the same, it’s much more stable in mid-summer. So if say a female turtle, lays her eggs in the ground, at say, June 1st is the historic nesting date for our Painted turtles, she really wants that temperature to be predicting the temperature throughout the nest, especially when the eggs are actually sensitive to temperature as far as determining their sex, and that generally is the middle third of development. For our turtles historically, that would be July. If they advance their nesting date, so say they’re advancing a week or two – maybe now they’re nesting in mid-May. The nest’s temperatures are warming a lot more rapidly. While they might plant the eggs in the nest at the exact same temperature, on June 1 and May 15, because of climate change, the actual temperature the eggs experience by that middle-third of development, which is now mid-to-late June, is actually quite a bit higher than they historically were in July. What it basically means is that the females might be nesting at the exact same temperature year after year while nesting earlier, but because of this more rapid increase in temperature in early spring, later in development, the nests are actually warmer than they were before climate change, even with these fairly massive shifts in female nesting behavior.
CURWOOD: Because no one has told the turtles that, “by the way, maybe your eggs are going to be a lot hotter in the middle of July, so maybe you ought to lay them even earlier.”
TELEMECO: That’s correct.
CURWOOD: What about evolution here? Turtles have been around for over 200 million years surely there must be a way they could adapt.
TELEMECO: There are many ways turtles could evolve and adapt to changing environments. The challenge is going to be that climate change is occurring so very rapidly. We’re expecting changes of four to eight degrees C within 100 years. And these turtles are fairly long lived. It takes them five years to be reproductive, and then they can continue to survive and be reproducing every year, for another 20 to 25 years, and that rate of generation time really slows the ability of populations to evolve. It means that you would need dramatic evolutionary changes within just a few generations for them to be able to cope with the types of environmental change we’re predicting over the next century.
CURWOOD: Rory, what if anything, can we do to prevent this?
TELEMECO: Ideally, we would cut back emissions, and do all the things that numerous political activist groups are trying to get done. We’re not going to be able to completely stop climate change, but pull it back and keep the climate from changing so much. Short of that, the things we can do to help support these organisms, or keep them from going extinct at least, are the same sorts of things we would do under any other circumstances. But it’s going to be really difficult and, sadly, I really don’t think we’re going to be able to save all of them.
CURWOOD: Rory Telemeco is a biologist at Iowa State University. Thanks for taking the time.
TELEMECO: Thank you very much for having me.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Newsletter [Click here]
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth