Researchers from The University of Western Australia have discovered that the ability of sea turtles to respond to heat stress varies with their genes and is inherited.
The study, carried out with the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife, CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Marine Science used Loggerhead Sea Turtle eggs from two regions in WA to try and understand how reptile embryos may be able to adapt to global warming.
It is the first ever research to look at geographical and genetic variation in sea turtle embryos’ physiological response to heat pressure.
Researcher Jamie Tedeschi from UWA’s School of Animal Biology said the findings, published by Royal Society B, explored the genetic mechanisms underpinning how reptiles tolerate high nest temperatures.
“Reptile embryos have limited options for avoiding high nest temperatures, and responding at a physiological level may be critical to coping with global temperature increases,” Dr Tedeschi said.
“Survival in a warming world depends on the ability of a species to adapt to the changing environment around them.
“We took the embryos of a wild and endangered species, the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, and looked at the activity of the genes that allow them to tolerate high temperatures.
“These genes are called heat-shock genes, and we were interested to see whether the reaction to heat stress activity varied among individuals and between populations.
"Genetic variation forms the building blocks of evolution, and it needs to be present for organisms to adapt to changing conditions,” she said.
Dr Tedeschi said turtle eggs were collected from two different Western Australian beaches – a temperate rookery on Dirk Hartog Island in Shark Bay and a sub-tropical rookery in the Ningaloo Reef area.
“We incubated the eggs in the lab at normal temperatures, and then gave them a short heat shock at a high temperature,” she said.
"We then compared the activity of heat-shock genes in control and thermally-challenged embryos.”
The researchers found there is significant variation in heat-shock proteins produced by sea turtles and that the differences are inherited across generations, important if turtles are to adapt to a changing environment.
David Stacey (UWA Media and Public Relations Manager)(+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716