Behaviour and physiology: The thermal strategy of leatherback turtles

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Abstract

Background: Adult leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) exhibit thermal gradients between their bodies and the environment of ≥8°C in sub-polar waters and ≤4°C in the tropics. There has been no direct evidence for thermoregulation in leatherbacks although modelling and morphological studies have given an indication of how thermoregulation may be achieved. Methodology/Principal Findings:We show for the first time that leatherbacks are indeed capable of thermoregulation from studies on juvenile leatherbacks of 16 and 37 kg. In cold water ( < 25°C), flipper stroke frequency increased, heat loss through the plastron, carapace and flippers was minimized, and a positive thermal gradient of up to 2.3°C was maintained between body and environment. In warm water (25 - 31°C), turtles were inactive and heat loss through their plastron, carapace and flippers increased. The thermal gradient was minimized (0.5°C). Using a scaling model, we estimate that a 300 kg adult leatherback is able to maintain a maximum thermal gradient of 18.2°C in cold sub-polar waters. Conclusions/Significance:In juvenile leatherbacks, heat gain is controlled behaviourally by increasing activity while heat flux is regulated physiologically, presumably by regulation of blood flow distribution. Hence, harnessing physiology and behaviour allows leatherbacks to keep warm while foraging in cold sub-polar waters and to prevent overheating in a tropical environment.

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Bostrom, B. L., Jones, T. T., Hastings, M., & Jones, D. R. (2010). Behaviour and physiology: The thermal strategy of leatherback turtles. PLoS ONE, 5(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0013925

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