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What Natural Forces Determine Gender Size Differences in Turtles?

Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute biologist Dr. Josh Ennen holds female, left, and male examples of the Florida Red-bellied Cooter.

“Climate change is definitely a big deal for reptiles.” – Dr. Josh Ennen, Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute biologist.

It may sound like a lofty concept, but understanding sexual dimorphism — or the difference in size or appearance between males and females of a particular species — is simple enough if you consider male birds. From crimson Cardinals and azure Peafowl to emerald-crowned Wood Ducks, the bird world is packed with examples of males exhibiting brighter, more vivid coloring than their comparatively drab females counterparts.

Among turtles, sexual dimorphism tends to boil down to a difference in size, but the factors that drive female turtles to tower over males, or vice versa, is a largely understudied topic.

Recently, however, researchers from the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the University of California, Davis, sought to fill this gap in herpetological knowledge. By parsing data from many previously published studies, the group was able to create a meta-analysis that highlights, on a global scale, the natural forces that determine how male and female turtles measure up to each other.

“Body size has a lot to do with overall fitness of an organism,” says Tennessee Aquarium biologist Dr. Josh Ennen. The institute’s geographic information systems analyst, Sarah Sweat, also co-authored the study.

“Many people have looked at habitat or reproductive behavior as correlates to tell if males will be larger than females, or vice versa,” he adds. “But what people had not yet done was combine that data with temperature and other…

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