Abstract

Coastal development can alter the natural dynamics of beach environments, with strong implications for associated biota. Sea turtles nest on oceanic beaches and often depend upon a specific range of conditions for successful nesting. In the case of the critically endangered leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), we know little regarding what features they select for nest sites, including how they respond to anthropogenic development. We examined relationships between leatherback nest frequency, beach environments, and tourism development at Playa Grande, Costa Rica, the location of the largest current nesting population in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Developed beach sections had shallower slopes, lower pH, and less air-filled pore space, but higher water content and salinity than undeveloped areas. Developed areas were also comprised of more sand in the smaller grain size classes relative to undeveloped sections. Leatherback nesting was positively correlated with deepness of the offshore approach, beach slope and elevation, pH, and sand in intermediate size classes (0.025-mm diameter), but negatively correlated with sand in the smallest silt size class (< 0.0625-mm diameter). Leatherback nesting frequency was 3.4 times higher in undeveloped sections of the beach relative to developed areas, while nonnesting emergences were 2.6 times more likely in developed relative to undeveloped areas. It is apparent that coastal development has impacted beach environments with consequences for leatherback nest site distribution. It is likely that additional development of the beach under mixed-management plans to support a growing tourist industry will further degrade the attractiveness and quality of the beach for leatherback nesting.

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