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Researchers are trying to get ahead of how extreme heat will affect baby sea turtles

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's a record-breaking year for sea turtle nests on the coast of South Florida. That's due in part to conservation efforts like lighting regulations and nest monitoring. Now researchers are trying to get ahead of the next challenge - changing temperatures. Member station WLRN's Yvonne zum Tobel reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

YVONNE ZUM TOBEL, BYLINE: It's 6:30 a.m., and I'm enjoying a bumpy ride on a utility vehicle.

DAVID ANDERSON: Yeah, so every morning at sunrise, we're out here surveying the beach.

ZUM TOBEL: That's David Anderson, a conservationist with the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton.

ANDERSON: It's the coolest time of the day. The sunrise is always beautiful. So it's a nice time to be out.

ZUM TOBEL: From March to October, Anderson and his crew survey nesting and hatching activity for green, leatherback, and loggerhead sea turtles along this 5-mile stretch of beach. Anderson says it's been a great year for sea turtles - thousands of nests marked with orange wooden stakes spread across the beach as far as the eye can see. So far, Boca Raton has counted over 1,300 nests. Anderson spots one that hatched overnight.

ANDERSON: It does collapse a little bit like a sinkhole, so it usually leaves a little bowl-shaped depression on the surface. And then you see all the little hatchling prints going to the water.

ZUM TOBEL: They're tiny impressions in the sand the size of raindrops. A bit later, Anderson and his colleague find larger tracks from a fox that was trying to dig out another nest. They decide to save some of the baby turtles that just hatched.

ANDERSON: We'll only stick our hand down in far enough to rescue any that are near the surface because as it gets hot today, any hatchling just beneath the sand, of course, would just, you know, succumb to the heat. We'll cover this back up - allow it to hatch naturally again tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAND MOVING)

ZUM TOBEL: Sand temperature is important to baby sea turtles. It determines when they hatch and what gender they'll be. Anderson and his colleagues want to know more about the effect of heat, so they work with a local university to collect some of the turtles.

ANDERSON: This particular nest has a research cage over it to capture all the hatchlings.

ZUM TOBEL: It hatched last night. And the cage is full of baby green turtles.

ANDERSON: These hatchlings are taken back to the FAU marine lab where their sex will be determined male or female. And inside this nest, there's what's called a temperature data logger to record the temperature during the two-month incubation.

CHELSEA BENNICE: ...Stay, you know, on the other side of the...

ZUM TOBEL: Florida Atlantic University's Marine Lab has been conducting a sex-ratio study for the past 20 years. Chelsea Bennice is a researcher.

BENNICE: So we like to say hot chicks and cool dudes. So warmer sand means usually more females in the nest, and cooler temperatures around the nest means more males.

ZUM TOBEL: Last year's numbers show 12 to 30% were males depending on the turtle species. That's still OK because females mate with multiple partners and can store sperm. But researchers want to get ahead of any impact a warming planet could have on the male population. Anderson says sea turtle conservation has just come too far for conservationists to let their guard down.

ANDERSON: These animals - they take a long time to reach maturity - 20 or 30 years or so depending on the species. And, you know, we're seeing the fruits of the labor from, you know, decades ago.

ZUM TOBEL: So far this year, the number of eggs simply hatching is high which is a good sign since only about 1 in 1,000 baby sea turtles makes it to adulthood. For NPR News, I'm Yvonne zum Tobel in Boca Raton.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CACTUS CHANNEL'S "STAY A WHILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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