Somatic growth dynamics are an integrated response to environmental conditions. Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are long-lived, major consumers in coral reef habitats that move over broad geographic areas (hundreds to thousands of kilometers). We evaluated spatio-temporal effects on hawksbill growth dynamics over a 33-yr period and 24 study sites throughout the West Atlantic and explored relationships between growth dynamics and climate indices. We compiled the largest ever data set on somatic growth rates for hawksbills – 3541 growth increments from 1980 to 2013. Using generalized additive mixed model analyses, we evaluated 10 covariates, including spatial and temporal variation, that could affect growth rates. Growth rates throughout the region responded similarly over space and time. The lack of a spatial effect or spatio-temporal interaction and the very strong temporal effect reveal that growth rates in West Atlantic hawksbills are likely driven by region-wide forces. Between 1997 and 2013, mean growth rates declined significantly and steadily by 18%. Regional climate indices have significant relationships with annual growth rates with 0- or 1-yr lags: positive with the Multivariate El Niño Southern Oscillation Index (correlation = 0.99) and negative with Caribbean sea surface temperature (correlation = −0.85). Declines in growth rates between 1997 and 2013 throughout the West Atlantic most likely resulted from warming waters through indirect negative effects on foraging resources of hawksbills. These climatic influences are complex. With increasing temperatures, trajectories of decline of coral cover and availability in reef habitats of major prey species of hawksbills are not parallel. Knowledge of how choice of foraging habitats, prey selection, and prey abundance are affected by warming water temperatures is needed to understand how climate change will affect productivity of consumers that live in association with coral reefs.
Abstract In response to a call from the US National Research Council for research programs to combine their data to improve sea turtle population assessments, we analyzed somatic growth data for Northwest Atlantic (NWA) loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) from 10 research programs. We assessed growth dynamics over wide ranges of geography (9–33°N latitude), time (1978–2012), and body size (35.4–103.3 cm carapace length). Generalized additive models revealed significant spatial and temporal variation in growth rates and a sig- nificant decline in growth rates with increasing body size. Growth was more rapid in waters south of the USA (\24°N) than in USA waters. Growth dynamics in southern waters in the NWA need more study because sample size was small. Within USA waters, the significant spatial effect in growth rates of immature loggerheads did not exhibit a consistent latitudinal trend. Growth rates declined signifi- cantly from 1997 through 2007 and then leveled off or increased. During this same interval, annual nest counts in Florida declined by 43 % (Witherington et al. in Ecol Appl 19:30–54, 2009) before rebounding. Whether these simul- taneous declines reflect responses in productivity to a common environmental change should be explored to determine whether somatic growth rates can help interpret population trends based on annual counts of nests or nesting females. Because of the significant spatial and temporal variation in growth rates, population models of NWA loggerheads should avoid employing growth data from restricted spatial or temporal coverage to calculate demographic metrics such as age at sexual maturity.
Somatic growth is an integrated, individual-based response to environmental conditions, especially in ectotherms. Growth dynamics of large, mobile animals are particularly useful as bio-indicators of environmental change at regional scales. We assembled growth rate data from throughout the West Atlantic for green turtles, Chelonia mydas, which are long-lived, highly migratory, primarily herbivorous mega-consumers that may migrate over hundreds to thousands of kilometers. Our dataset, the largest ever compiled for sea turtles, has 9690 growth increments from 30 sites from Bermuda to Uruguay from 1973 to 2015. Using generalized additive mixed models, we evaluated covariates that could affect growth rates; body size, diet, and year have significant effects on growth. Growth increases in early years until 1999, then declines by 26% to 2015. The temporal (year) effect is of particular interest because two carnivorous species of sea turtles – hawksbills, Eretmochelys imbricata, and loggerheads, Caretta caretta – exhibited similar significant declines in growth rates starting in 1997 in the West Atlantic, based on previous studies. These synchronous declines in productivity among three sea turtle species across a trophic spectrum provide strong evidence that an ecological regime shift (ERS) in the Atlantic is driving growth dynamics. The ERS resulted from a synergy of the 1997/1998 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – the strongest on record – combined with an unprecedented warming rate over the last two to three decades. Further support is provided by the strong correlations between annualized mean growth rates of green turtles and both sea surface temperatures (SST) in the West Atlantic for years of declining growth rates (r = -0.94) and the Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI) for all years (r = 0.74). Granger-causality analysis also supports the latter finding. We discuss multiple stressors that could reinforce and prolong the effect of the ERS. This study demonstrates the importance of region-wide collaborations.