Turtle embryos evolved to choose sex and inoculate themselves against climate change

Turtle embryos have evolved to choose their own sex by wriggling around in their eggs – and it could protect the species from climate change

  • Researchers say turtles can affect their own sex while in the shell
  • Embryos move and regulate their body temperature which affects sex outcome
  • They may be using the tool to help stave off the effects of climate change
  • Further research is warranted according to others in the scientific community 

A new study suggests that turtle embryos are evolving to choose their own sex before hatching – a trait that could help stave off the effects of climate change

Turtles, like many other reptiles, have their sex determined by temperature, making them particularly responsive to shifts in climate. 

A study published in Current Biology discovered that by wriggling around inside their egg, the animals are able to regulate their own temperature and influence their biology — a trait that may ensure a balance of males and females, and keep their species alive. 

‘The discovery of this surprising level of control in such a tiny organism suggests that in at least some cases, evolution has conferred an ability to deal with such challenges [as climate change],’ Wei-Guo Du, the study’s corresponding author and professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in a statement. 

To study the turtles’ response to temperature changes, researchers used a drug called capsazepine to block turtle embryos’ heat-detector and preventing the turtle eggs from sensing shifts in hot and cold.  

Scientists then applied a range of different heats to the eggs and examined their response. 

They found a greater balance of sexes hatched from the eggs that could sense the heat, while those whose receptors were blocked skewed either predominantly male or female.

The parity of the uninhibited eggs was achieved by turtles moving in their shells to discover what researchers call the ‘Goldilocks Zone,’ they say.

‘This could explain how reptile species with temperature-dependent sex determination have managed to survive previous periods in Earth history when temperatures were far hotter than at present,’ said Du in a statement.

The study has generated some mixed responses from others in the scientific community, however. 

Turk Rhen, a professor in biology at the University of North Dakota, who was interviewed by Gizmodo, says that there are other factors in the experiment that could have potentially influenced outcomes.

The study garnered a mixed reaction from the scientific community with some saying the conditions of the experiment were inexact

The study garnered a mixed reaction from the scientific community with some saying the conditions of the experiment were inexact

Among them are how the researchers held or tilted the eggs and how they peered into the eggs using flashlights — a method Rhen said could yield inexact results.

Other’s however, have placed faith in the findings, but note that it may not apply to other types of turtles outside of the Chinese pond turtles studied by researchers.

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To help answer the question definitively, researchers say the turtles’ response to temperature change should be further monitored.

Researchers also note that while the ability to regulate sex inside the egg may help to mitigate adverse effects of climate change, it’s by no means a complete immunity.

‘The embryo’s control over its own sex may not be enough to protect it from the much more rapid climate change currently being caused by human activities, which is predicted to cause severe female-biased populations,’ said Du in a statement.   


Nature is in more trouble now than at any time in human history with extinction looming over one million species of plants and animals, experts say.

That’s the key finding of the United Nations‘ (UN) first comprehensive report on biodiversity – the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat.

The report – published on May 6, 2019 – says species are being lost at a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past. 

Many of the worst effects can be prevented by changing the way we grow food, produce energy, deal with climate change and dispose of waste, the report said.

The report’s 39-page summary highlighted five ways people are reducing biodiversity:

– Turning forests, grasslands and other areas into farms, cities and other developments. The habitat loss leaves plants and animals homeless. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85% of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost, making it harder for species to survive, the report said.

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– Overfishing the world’s oceans. A third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished.

– Permitting climate change from the burning of fossil fuels to make it too hot, wet or dry for some species to survive. Almost half of the world’s land mammals – not including bats – and nearly a quarter of the birds have already had their habitats hit hard by global warming.

– Polluting land and water. Every year, 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s waters.

– Allowing invasive species to crowd out native plants and animals. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70 per cent since 1970, with one species of bacteria threatening nearly 400 amphibian species.



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