Leatherback nests increasing significantly in Florida, USA; trends assessed over 30 years using multilevel modeling

K Stewart, Michelle Sims, A Meylan, B Witherington, B Brost, L B Crowder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (SciVal)


Understanding population status for endangered species is critical to developing and evaluating recovery plans mandated by the Endangered Species Act. For sea turtles, changes in abundance are difficult to detect because most life stages occur in the water. Currently, nest counts are the most reliable way of assessing trends. We determined the rate of growth for leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nest numbers in Florida (USA) using a multilevel Poisson regression. We modeled nest counts from 68 beaches over 30 years and, using beach-level covariates (including latitude), we allowed for partial pooling of information between neighboring beaches. This modeling approach is ideal for nest count data because it recognizes the hierarchical structure of the data while incorporating variables related to survey effort. Nesting has increased at all 68 beaches in Florida, with trends ranging from 3.1% to 16.3% per year. Overall, across the state, the number of nests has been increasing by 10.2% per year since 1979. Despite being a small population (probably,1000 individuals), this nesting population may help achieve objectives in the federal recovery plan. This exponential growth rate mirrors trends observed for other Atlantic populations and may be driven partially by improved protection of nesting beaches. However, nesting is increasing even where beach protection has not been enhanced. Climate variability and associated marine food web dynamics, which could enhance productivity and reduce predators, may be driving this trend.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263-273
Number of pages11
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011

Bibliographical note

count data, Dermochelys coriacea, Florida USA, leatherback turtle, multilevel model, nesting, population status, sea turtle, trends


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