100 million years of turtles CREDIT Mauricio Anton

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Museum study suggests turtles are in a race against time to beat climate change

Pioneering new study looks back into deep time to predict how turtles will respond to shifting climates in the future

  • Turtles will likely survive in a warming world if they are able to migrate to new habitats before theirs become unsustainable in a race against time to beat climate change

  • This research project can be used as a model to inform conservation efforts and help protect more species during the planetary emergency 

A new study led by scientists at the Natural History Museum and the University of Vigo has used the fossil record to look back into deep time and predict the distributions of turtles across an increasingly hotter planet. 

The findings show that turtles are likely to survive in a climate of +1.5 to 2 degrees – the rate at which the planet is expected to warm with climate change – but not in the same locations in which they exist today.

If turtles are to survive the planetary emergency, they must migrate to new surroundings away from their current habitats in the tropics and subtropics, which would become drier and therefore defunct to turtle populations. However, as the planet warms, other locations become potentially habitable. As the latitudinal range stretches there are large areas of northern North America and northern Asia that become wetter and warmer creating a more suitable habitat for turtles.

Lead author Alfio Alessandro Chiarenza says, ‘To escape the effects of climate change and avoid extinction due to man-made climate change, turtles must migrate away from their current habitats to a more suitable environment as the planet continues to warm. Although not known for their urgency, turtles will need to act fast to beat the rate of climate change.’

‘Another obstacle to take into account is the anthropogenic pressures on a potential migration. This research provides a basis to inform conservation efforts for turtles, and potentially more species, whose habitats are vulnerable to climate change.’

Using turtles as guinea pigs

The team decided to focus this project on turtles for several reasons. Compared to other fossil reptiles, turtles have a surprisingly good fossil record due to their shells. Turtle ecology hasn’t changed much over the last few hundred million years, which means they are easy to locate and to identify resulting in a relatively good understanding of their distribution. Turtles have a strong relationship with their environment and exist in a very sturdy study system which researchers can use to understand their climate and environmental limits.

By bringing together data on turtles and environmental conditions the team were able to gauge a theoretical environmental space in which the animals could potentially exist, and so make further predictions based on known occurrences. After successfully trailing this model in deep time using fossil data, the group were able to reflect it onto scenarios in the future, i.e., an increasing temperature. 

Co-author Amy Waterson, previously of the Museum, says, ‘While these methods are commonly applied to study species alive today, they have received limited use as a tool to study deep time as the fossil record is more restricted the further back you go. ’

The importance of the Collection

There are currently only a few analogues that can accurately predict what will happen to animals throughout the planetary emergency. The fossil record is an incredibly useful tool to help develop this further since climate change of this magnitude has already taken place across Earth’s cooling-off period, and is recorded in natural history collections like that housed at the Museum and used in this research.

Prof Paul Barrett of the Museum, and senior author on this paper says, ‘This study excellently demonstrates the untold potential of collections to use historical data to offer new insights into ongoing ecological issues. This process, by which we can predict ecological responses to environmental conditions, will inform conservators and policy makers on how best to prepare for the effects of the planetary emergency.’

100 Ma of turtle palaeoniche dynamics enables prediction of latitudinal range shifts in a warming world’ will be published by the journal Current Biology at 16.00 GMT on Wednesday 21 December 2022. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.11.056  
This research was made possible due to funding from NERC, ERC and the Juan de la Cierva Formación 2020 Fellowship funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.


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The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited indoor attraction in the UK last year. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world. 

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens accessed by researchers from all over the world both in person and via over 30 billion digital data downloads to date. The Museum’s 350 scientists are finding solutions to the planetary emergency from biodiversity loss through to the sustainable extraction of natural resources. 

The Museum uses its global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome millions of visitors through our doors each year, our website has had 17 million visits in the last year and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 20 million people in the last 10 years.