What causes a sea turtle to be born male or female?

Most turtles are subject to temperature-dependent sex determination.

a sea turtle

A Green turtle hatchling heads to sea in the northwest Hawaiian islands. Credit: Mark Sullivan, NOAA Permit 10137-07

In most species, gender is determined during fertilization. However, the sex of most turtles, alligators, and crocodiles is determined after fertilization. The temperature of the developing eggs is what decides whether the offspring will be male or female. This is called temperature-dependent sex determination, or TSD.

Research shows that if a turtle's eggs incubate below 81.86 Fahrenheit, the turtle hatchlings will be male. If the eggs incubate above 87.8° Fahrenheit, however, the hatchlings will be female. Temperatures that fluctuate between the two extremes will produce a mix of male and female baby turtles.

Researchers have also noted that the warmer the sand, the higher the ratio of female turtles. As the Earth experiences climate change, increased temperatures could result in skewed and even lethal incubation conditions, which would impact turtle species and other reptiles.

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Current research suggests that warming trends due to climate change may result in more female turtles being born!

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Last updated: 10/10/17
Author: NOAA
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