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Van Houtan Pioneers Understanding of Climate Effects on Sea Turtles

   Van Houtan in his office at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Hawaii.

Kyle Van Houtan surveys hawksbill sea turtle nesting sites in American Samoa.

Kyle Van Houtan and Todd Jones, both NOAA scientists, speak to preschoolers in Hawaii about sea turtles as part of community outreach. 







July 23, 2012

Kyle S. Van Houtan, Ph.D., a NOAA Fisheries research ecologist, has taken sea turtle science into new territory with research showing that changes in the ocean environment and climate have profound effects on sea turtle populations. In fact, he has just been honored by the White House with a prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Van Houtan, who leads NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Turtle Assessment Program in Honolulu, Hawaii, has found that long-term warming and cooling ocean cycles are the largest influence to nesting sea turtle populations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ocean cycles regulate the turtles’ food supply and thus affect two key life stages—the hatchlings’ survival and the nesting females’ capacity to migrate and lay eggs.

Sea Turtles and Climate

“Unlike birds or mammals, for example, sea turtles get zero parental investment,” Van Houtan said, who likens their populations more to fish. “With sea turtles, the climate is essentially their parent. As a result, the number of nesters that we see on a beach in any given year is mostly a reflection of the climate conditions decades ago when the females that are nesting today were born.”

In an article recently published in the journal PLoS ONE, Van Houtan shows that up to 90 percent of adult sea turtle population variability during the past several decades is regulated by climate. Van Houtan’s population modeling helps NOAA understand the status of sea turtle populations and aids in forecasting future sea turtle populations. His research has been published in leading scientific journals and featured in major international newspapers.

Behind the Science is a Successful Scientist

In addition to his research, Van Houtan has worked to increase the number and diversity of marine scientists in the Pacific Islands. He co-taught a course for professors from small, poorly-funded community colleges and universities from across the U.S. Pacific Island territories. He also mentors undergraduate students who work in his lab on research that examines how land use and coastal runoff contributes to sea turtle tumors.

Van Houtan earned a doctorate in ecology and ethics from Duke University, a master’s of science degree in evolutionary biology from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of Virginia. Van Houtan joined NOAA in 2009, when he was teaching biology and ethics at Emory University.

“The scientists and managers at NOAA Fisheries Service are thrilled that Dr. Van Houtan’s pioneering scientific research and strong commitment to mentor new scientists has been recognized by the White House,“ said Richard Merrick, Ph.D., NOAA Fisheries Chief Science Advisor.

“Kyle has shown how a deep understanding of biology, ecology, and climate science can provide answers to the important question of how climate change can affect animal populations over decades and vast geographies.”