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Project Background

Since 2003, STC has conducted a community-based sea turtle research and protection program in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama, an archipelago that includes some of the most important nesting sites for endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles in the world.

There is growing concern among sea turtle biologist around the world that rising global temperatures and other impacts associated with climate change (such as rising seas and stronger storms) will negatively impact sea turtle populations. Because a sea turtle’s sex is determined by the average temperature of the sand in which it incubates, rising temperatures may be producing skewed sex ratios among hatchling sea turtles – resulting in greatly more female turtles than is normal in certain sea turtle populations. This may interfere with the ability of sea turtles to continue their positive population trends and reduce overall health of the species.

In addition, there is growing evidence that sea level rise and the increased frequency of strong storms and hurricanes may be harming the viability of key nesting sites. These nesting sites provide the perfect setting for STC to study the impacts of climate change and global warming on sea turtles by monitoring the nest incubation temperature, overall sand temperature and impacts from erosion. This research will provide important information about the incubation and hatching success of two sea turtle species and reveal how climate change may be impacting the health and sex ratios of these populations.

Furthermore, STC will test a number of new techniques for reducing the impacts of climate change on sea turtles, particularly the tactic of relocating nests higher on the beach to areas that get more afternoon shading and are above the reach of most storm-related erosion. Our hope is that the project will increase sea turtle survivorship in Bocas del Toro and lead to new discoveries that can be used at other nesting sites around the world.

Project Aims

  1. Further the understanding of climate impacts on an important sea turtle rookery in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama through a rigorous set of scientific studies on the nesting beach.
  2. Provide top-notch field research and sea turtle conservation experience for young biologists from under-served Latin American countries.
  3. Formulate and test conservation strategies to adapt to the effects of climate change on endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles.

Summary of Project Objectives

  • Measure changes in sea turtle nest incubation temperature using data loggers placed inside nests and monitored throughout the incubation process.
  • Monitor beach temperature profiles at selected beach mile markers in the STC study area.
  • Excavate nests to determine the incubation and hatching success (the percentage of turtles that developed and hatched from their eggs).
  • Set up monitoring for rainfall and groundwater levels, combined with beach erosion monitoring to assess climate impacts on the nesting habitat over time.
  • Develop a protocol to evaluate physiological markers of hatchlings to verify whether nests are producing more females than males.
  • Select and train aspiring biologists from under-served Latin American nations in proven sea turtle monitoring and conservation techniques.
  • Determine the best strategies for improving hatching success, such as relocating nests to shaded areas to lower the nest incubation temperature or to higher ground to protect them from high tides.

Key Project Outcomes

  • Two species of endangered sea turtles nesting in Panama will benefit from investigation into the impacts of climate change and global warming on future populations.
  • Aspiring biologists from under-served nations will bring the knowledge and experience they learned with STC back to their home countries to conduct similar programs on sea turtle nesting beaches.
  • STC staff will begin to implement strategies to protect nests from the effects of climate change and global warming at research sites in Panama.

Project Partners & Community Involvement

Among the 10 different nesting beaches that STC monitors on Panama’s Caribbean coast, STC partners with members of many different communities. STC’s research station in Soropta is staffed by young biologists from several Latin American countries and locals who live near the station.

At its station in remote Chiriqui, STC partners with the local community of indigenous Ngobe-Bugle Indians, who have been hired and trained by STC to help protect turtle nests. STC also hosts educational events and presentations for local Panamanian school children and adults about sea turtles and the threats they face. As part of this project, STC will take extra steps to recruit, train and employ aspiring biologists from under-served Latin American countries such as Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Part of a Larger Strategy

For nearly 60 years, STC has conducted sea turtle research and protection on the Caribbean coast of Central America.

This project fits well with the organization’s long-term strategies and goals for sea turtle recovery. Sea turtles are especially vulnerable to threats such as climate change and global warming, and organizations such as STC must be prepared to study the effects and provide solutions on how to adapt to this threat. It is also important to educate tomorrow’s conservation leaders about how to respond to this issue. This program will help accomplish this overall goal.

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