Jurjan P van der Zee

Demographic changes in Pleistocene sea turtles were driven by past sea level fluctuations affecting feeding habitat availability


Pleistocene environmental changes are generally assumed to have dramatically af-fected species’ demography via changes in habitat availability, but this is challenging to investigate due to our limited knowledge of how Pleistocene ecosystems changed through time. Here, we tracked changes in shallow marine habitat availability resulting from Pleistocene sea level fluctuations throughout the last glacial cycle (120–14  thou-sand years ago; kya) and assessed correlations with past changes in genetic diver-sity inferred from genome-wide SNPs, obtained via ddRAD sequencing, in Caribbean hawksbill turtles, which feed in coral reefs commonly found in shallow tropical waters. We found sea level regression resulted in an average 75% reduction in shallow ma-rine habitat availability during the last glacial cycle. Changes in shallow marine habitat availability correlated strongly with past changes in hawksbill turtle genetic diver-sity, which gradually declined to ~1/4th of present-day levels during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; 26–19   kya). Shallow marine habitat availability and genetic diver-sity rapidly increased after the LGM, signifying a population expansion in response to warming environmental conditions. Our results suggest a positive correlation be-tween Pleistocene environmental changes, habitat availability and species’ demog-raphy, and that demographic changes in hawksbill turtles were potentially driven by feeding habitat availability. However, we also identified challenges associated with disentangling  the  potential  environmental  drivers  of  past  demographic  changes, which highlights the need for integrative approaches. Our conclusions underline the role of habitat availability on species’ demography and biodiversity, and that the con-sequences of ongoing habitat loss should not be underestimated.


KEYWORDS: ddRAD sequencing, demographic change, habitat availability, Pleistocene sea turtles, sea level change

Data type
Scientific article
Education and outreach
Research and monitoring
Geographic location
St. Eustatius
St. Maarten