Behavioral Inference of Diving Metabolic Rate in Free‐Ranging Leatherback Turtles

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Clive R. McMahon, Graeme C. Hays

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


Good estimates of metabolic rate in free-ranging animals are essential for understanding behavior, distribution, and abundance. For the critically endangered leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), one of the world's largest reptiles, there has been a long-standing debate over whether this species demonstrates any metabolic endothermy. In short, do leatherbacks have a purely ectothermic reptilian metabolic rate or one that is elevated as a result of regional endothermy? Recent measurements have provided the first estimates of field metabolic rate (FMR) in leatherback turtles using doubly labeled water; however, the technique is prohibitively expensive and logistically difficult and produces estimates that are highly variable across individuals in this species. We therefore examined dive duration and depth data collected for nine free-swimming leatherback turtles over long periods (up to 431 d) to infer aerobic dive limits (ADLs) based on the asymptotic increase in maximum dive duration with depth. From this index of ADL and the known mass-specific oxygen storage capacity (To(2)) of leatherbacks, we inferred diving metabolic rate (DMR) as To2/ADL. We predicted that if leatherbacks conform to the purely ectothermic reptilian model of oxygen consumption, these inferred estimates of DMR should fall between predicted and measured values of reptilian resting and field metabolic rates, as well as being substantially lower than the FMR predicted for an endotherm of equivalent mass. Indeed, our behaviorally derived DMR estimates (mean=0.73+/-0.11 mL O(2) min(-1) kg(-1)) were 3.00+/-0.54 times the resting metabolic rate measured in unrestrained leatherbacks and 0.50+/-0.08 times the average FMR for a reptile of equivalent mass. These DMRs were also nearly one order of magnitude lower than the FMR predicted for an endotherm of equivalent mass. Thus, our findings lend support to the notion that diving leatherback turtles are indeed ectothermic and do not demonstrate elevated metabolic rates that might be expected due to regional endothermy. Their capacity to have a warm body core even in cold water therefore seems to derive from their large size, heat exchangers, thermal inertia, and insulating fat layers and not from an elevated metabolic rate.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)209-219
Number of pages11
JournalPhysiological and Biochemical Zoology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2007
Externally publishedYes


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