Short-term behavioural responses to thermal stress by hawksbill turtles in the Arabian region
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We present a previously unrecorded short-term behavioural response by hawksbill sea turtles to elevated sea surface temperatures in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Surface waters typically exceed 30°C for sustained periods during the summer, and can be likened to a natural living laboratory for understanding thermoregulatory behaviour by marine species in the face of climate change and elevated global temperatures. We satellite-tracked 90 post-nesting hawksbill turtles between 2010 and 2013 as part of a larger programme to elucidate turtle foraging habitats and post-nesting behaviour. We used 66 of these datasets, where turtles clearly departed and returned to foraging grounds, for these analyses. Sea surface temperatures during the summer averaged 33.5°C and peaked at 34.9°C. During these elongated periods of elevated temperatures (June–August) the turtles temporarily migrated an average of 70km to deeper and cooler waters at northern latitudes, returning after 2–3months (September–October) back to original feeding grounds. Temperature differential T∆ between foraging and summer loop habitats was significantly different and approximated −2°C. Turtles undertaking summer migration loops generally moved in a north-easterly direction toward deeper water, returning in a south-westerly direction to the shallower foraging grounds. Swim speeds were significantly higher and orientation was less omnidirectional during the migrations than when foraging. The outbound migrations were significantly inversely correlated with temperature, but were not linked to chlorophyll-a, geostrophic currents or sea surface height. The turtles' preference for returning to the same foraging grounds suggests a lack of other substantial influences which might have precipitated the temporary summer migration loops. Our results indicate that Gulf hawksbills employ thermoregulatory responses which take them out of high temperature and potentially physiology-threatening conditions. These findings improve our overall understanding of hawksbill habitat use and behaviour in a climate-challenged environment, and support sea turtle conservation-related policy decision-making at national and regional levels.
- Marine Science Cluster [35 items ]