Fine-scale thermal adaptation in a green turtle nesting population

Sam B. Weber, Annette C. Broderick, Ton G. G. Groothuis, Jacqui Ellick, Brendan J. Godley, Jonathan D. Blount


The effect of climate warming on the reproductive success of ectothermic animals is currently a subject of major conservation concern. However, for many threatened species, we still know surprisingly little about the extent of naturally occurring adaptive variation in heat-tolerance. Here, we show that the thermal tolerances of green turtle (Chelonia mydas) embryos in a single, island-breeding population have diverged in response to the contrasting incubation temperatures of nesting beaches just a few kilometres apart. In natural nests and in a common-garden rearing experiment, the offspring of females nesting on a naturally hot (black sand) beach survived better and grew larger at hot incubation temperatures compared with the offspring of females nesting on a cooler (pale sand) beach nearby. These differences were owing to shallower thermal reaction norms in the hot beach population, rather than shifts in thermal optima, and could not be explained by egg-mediated maternal effects. Our results suggest that marine turtle nesting behaviour can drive adaptive differentiation at remarkably fine spatial scales, and have important implications for how we define conservation units for protection. In particular, previous studies may have underestimated the extent of adaptive structuring in marine turtle populations that may significantly affect their capacity to respond to environmental change.

  • Received June 13, 2011.
  • Accepted August 28, 2011.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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