Maternal Health Status Correlates with Nest Success of Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) from Florida

Of the seven sea turtle species, the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) exhibits the lowest and most variable nest success (i.e., hatching success and emergence success) for reasons that remain largely unknown. In an attempt to identify or rule out causes of low reproductive success in this species, we established the largest sample size (n = 60–70 for most values) of baseline blood parameters (protein electrophoresis, hematology, plasma biochemistry) for this species to date. Hematologic, protein electrophoretic and biochemical values are important tools that can provide information regarding the physiological condition of an individual and population health as a whole. It has been proposed that the health of nesting individuals affects their reproductive output. In order to establish correlations with low reproductive success in leatherback sea turtles from Florida, we compared maternal health indices to hatching success and emergence success of their nests. As expected, hatching success (median = 57.4%) and emergence success (median = 49.1%) in Floridian leatherbacks were low during the study period (2007–2008 nesting seasons), a trend common in most nesting leatherback populations (average global hatching success = ∼50%). One protein electrophoretic value (gamma globulin protein) and one hematologic value (red blood cell count) significantly correlated with hatching success and emergence success. Several maternal biochemical parameters correlated with hatching success and/or emergence success including alkaline phosphatase activity, blood urea nitrogen, calcium, calcium∶phosphorus ratio, carbon dioxide, cholesterol, creatinine, and phosphorus. Our results suggest that in leatherbacks, physiological parameters correlate with hatching success and emergence success of their nests. We conclude that long-term and comparative studies are needed to determine if certain individuals produce nests with lower hatching success and emergence success than others, and if those individuals with evidence of chronic suboptimal health have lower reproductive success.