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Unearthing the sand microbiome of sea turtle nests with disparate survivorship at a mass-nesting beach in Costa Rica

Vanessa S. B├ęzy*, Kristina M. Hill-Spanik, Craig J. Plante

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: For endangered sea turtle populations, microbial pathogens of developing embryos are of concern at nesting sites around the globe. For olive ridley turtles, hatching success is markedly lower at mass-nesting sites than at solitary nesting beaches, a case presumably resulting from the abundance of decomposing eggs generated by nesting turtles destroying adjacent eggs. This organic input drives microbial activity, affecting the nest environment (i.e., pO2 and temperature), and reducing embryo survivorship and hatching success. However, the composition of microbial communities in nest sand has not been studied in detail and the presence of potential pathogens can, therefore, not be discounted. As a part of a larger study that investigated microbial abundance in nests, we employed high-throughput DNA sequencing to compare fungal and bacterial composition in nest sand from areas of disparate embryo survivorship. While we found no differences in α-diversity (mean operational taxonomic unit diversity within each site) among nesting areas, the microbial community composition of each area was distinct, and differences in community structure corresponded with variable hatching success. Some sequences of potential sea turtle egg pathogens were obtained (e.g., Fusarium solani species complex), but were in low relative abundance, and their presence was not associated with low hatching success. Our results from the arribada beach at Ostional, Costa Rica provide further evidence that the physical characteristics of the nest (including those that determine microbial composition and activity) are likely more relevant to hatching success than the presence of potential pathogens or microbial community structure alone.