While every credible scientific body is warning of the dramatic impacts climate change will have over the next century, Professor Graeme Hays’ doomsday scenario may be happening now - the extinction of the sea turtle.
‘Sea turtles are not born with sex chromosomes,’ explains Deakin University’s Professor of Marine Science, Professor Graeme Hays. ‘At the time of conception, sex is indeterminate. An embryo can develop into a male or female. What happens next is totally determined by the temperature.’
‘A little difference in temperature makes a profound difference to sea turtles,’ he says. ‘The key temperature for sex determination is 29°C; that’s the pivotal temperature. So at 28°C there would be more male hatchlings, and at 30°C there would be more female hatchlings. At 29°C you get some of both.’
Already, he says, rising temperatures are seeing the feminisation of many sea turtle colonies in the world.
‘Rising temperatures could potentially lead to the production of all female turtles, and then ultimately that would lead to extinction,’ he says.
As the world’s nations tackle dangerous climate change by determining carbon emission reduction targets and establishing renewable energy industries, Prof. Hays and his team’s work is happening at the grass roots level.
‘Our work is not done in a laboratory. All our work is going out and looking at how different temperatures impacts various aspects of an animal. Once we understand the role of temperature, we start to think about how temperature change may impact the animal.’
‘Rising temperatures could potentially lead to the production of all female turtles, and then ultimately that would lead to extinction,’
A key part of Prof. Hays’ research is de-vising interventions that can be put in place should data indicate the beginning of a particular scenario.
‘We think of simple management interventions,’ he says. ‘In the case of sea turtles, it’s about how to cool the nesting area.
‘Shading could be a primary mechanism, and then the question is how do you achieve that shading? You could have man-made tent structures that you put over the nest to shade them, or potentially you can water the sand. But some interventions are more labour-intensive than others. You might have 30,000 nest sites in a country, and then you would have to go and water them all.
‘A better solution might involve planting vegetation at the back of the nesting area to shade the nests.'
‘So, we go to parts of the world where the nesting areas have shaded vegetation, palm trees and the like, we look at the natural variability in temperature, and we start to get quantitative estimates about vegetation that can be used.’
Although the research of Prof. Hays and his team doesn’t tackle the major dangers of climate change – health, industry, and large scale disaster, for example – it is more likely to be acted on.
‘The less money it will cost to prevent a scenario, the more it becomes a possibility,’ he explains. ‘We say, here are some simple solutions that will prevent extinction, and suddenly they become a possibility. Everyone thinks that has to be a good idea.’