Studies show turtles race against time to beat climate change

If turtles can migrate to new habitats before their own habitat becomes unsustainable in a race against time to beat climate change, they will likely survive on a warming planet, according to a new study.

The research, led by scientists at the Museum of Natural History and the University of Vigo, used fossils to look at deep time and predict the distributions of turtles on an increasingly warm planet.

The findings suggest that animals were most likely to survive in a climate between +1.5C and 2C (the rate at which the planet is expected to warm with climate change), but not in the same place where they exist today.

As the planet warms, large areas of North America and northern Asia could become wetter and warmer, creating a more suitable habitat for turtles, the researchers say.

Lead author Alfio Alessandro Chiarenza, from the University of Vigo, said: “To escape the effects of climate change and prevent extinction due to human-induced climate change, turtles need to migrate from their current habitat to a more suitable environment as the planet continues. Warm, mildly warm.

“Although not known for their urgency, turtles will need to act quickly to beat the rate of climate change.”

Another obstacle to be taken into account is the human-induced pressures on a possible migration.

“This research provides a basis for informing conservation efforts for turtles and potentially more species whose habitats are vulnerable to climate change.”

The team decided to focus this project on turtles for several reasons.

Compared to other reptile fossils, turtles have a surprisingly good fossil record because of their shells, and their ecology hasn’t changed much over the past few hundred million years.

Turtles have a strong relationship with their environment and are within a very robust study system that researchers can use to understand their climate and environmental limits.

By combining data on turtles and environmental conditions, the team was able to measure a theoretical environmental area where animals could potentially exist, thereby making further predictions based on known events.

Professor Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum and senior author of this paper said: “This work perfectly demonstrates the untold potential of collections to use historical data to offer new insights into ongoing ecological problems.

“This process, by which we can predict ecological responses to environmental conditions, will inform conservationists and policymakers on how best to prepare for the effects of the planetary emergency.”

The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

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