All ETDs from UAB

Advisory Committee Chair

James B McClintock

Advisory Committee Members

Ken Marion

Sarah Parcak

Daniel Warner

Douglas Watson

Document Type

Dissertation

Date of Award

2018

Degree Name by School

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) College of Arts and Sciences

Abstract

This dissertation addresses several key gaps in our knowledge of how long-term threats, like climate change, impact the survival and reproduction of thermally-sensitive endangered sea turtles. Many aspects of the sea turtle life history, such as sex determination in hatchlings, are directly affected by environmental temperatures, making sea turtles crucial sentinels for monitoring the impacts of ecosystem variability. Chapter 1 re-evaluates the historic size of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle population in the context of current nesting trends at its primary nesting habitat in the western Gulf of Mexico to address recovery targets and the conservation status for this species. In Chapter 2, I use drone technology to investigate the rarely-observed courtship and mating behaviors of adult green sea turtles at offshore breeding habitat at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico in the Gulf of Mexico. Chapter 3 includes a comparison of sea turtle, crocodile, and shorebird behavioral responses to drones, which is critical information in establishing ethical and effective drone-use protocols for scientific research. Chapter 4 compares sand temperatures across much of the historic nesting range of the Kemp’s ridley to examine the potential of these beaches to provide viable nesting habitat considering near-future climate change. The final chapter evaluates rising nesting beach temperatures as a factor driving a feminizing trend in hatchling sex ratios for the Kemp’s ridley. Environmental temperatures influence the timing of important events for other life stages of sea turtles like reproductive activities for adults. Thus, my Ph.D. research is not only demonstrating the ability of novel technology to enhance sea turtle conservation, but is providing key insight into critical aspects of sea turtle life histories that occur at in-water habitats where sea turtles spend about 99% of their lives. Given an uncertain future, this research is generating pivotal information for the conservation and protection of the most endangered, data-limited, and geographically restricted species of endangered sea turtles in the world.

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