Warming seas increase cold-stunning events for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in the northwest Atlantic
Since the 1970s, the magnitude of turtle cold-stun strandings have increased dramatically within the northwestern Atlantic. Here, we examine oceanic, atmospheric, and biological factors that may affect the increasing trend of cold-stunned Kemp’s ridleys in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, United States of America. Using machine learning and Bayesian inference modeling techniques, we demonstrate higher cold-stunning years occur when the Gulf of Maine has warmer sea surface temperatures in late October through early November. Surprisingly, hatchling numbers in Mexico, a proxy for population abundance, was not identified as an important factor. Further, using our Bayesian count model and forecasted sea surface temperature projections, we predict more than 2,300 Kemp’s ridley turtles may cold-stun annually by 2031 as sea surface temperatures continue to increase within the Gulf of Maine. We suggest warmer sea surface temperatures may have modified the northerly distribution of Kemp’s ridleys and act as an ecological bridge between the Gulf Stream and nearshore waters. While cold-stunning may currently account for a minor proportion of juvenile mortality, we recommend continuing efforts to rehabilitate cold-stunned individuals to maintain population resiliency for this critically endangered species in the face of a changing climate and continuing anthropogenic threats.