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How Do Turtle Eggs Breath?

A sea turtle nest gains an advantage from being several inches (15 cm or more above) to a yard (1 meter) below the surface of the sand. Temperature moderates as depth increases in both absolute value and diurnal variation. The water content of the sand remains constant deep in the nest, even though the sand dries near the surface. The main problem for an egg clutch is getting enough oxygen to carry out metabolism and getting rid of the carbon dioxide produced during respiration. Oxygen is carried in the air and sand surrounding the nest to the clutch inside the nest by the process known as diffusion. Carbon dioxide is transported in the same way.

Fick’s law of diffusion defines the process. The movement of material by diffusion depends on the driving force that exists between an area of ​​high concentration and an area of ​​low concentration and on the resistance of the path between the source and the sink. In the case of a turtle nest, the sand provides most of the resistance because the eggshell is relatively porous to gas flow. In some cases oxygen can drop from 20.9% in air to 20.4% in sand due to the metabolism of bacteria in the sand and to 12 – 14% in the middle of the clutch just before hatching. However, the oxygen level in the clutch is similar to the alveoli in the human lung.

One of the reasons leatherbacks lay their eggs in the dry season is that the dry layer that forms on the surface of the sand helps transport gases more easily between the air and the nest. Olive Ridley nests on Arribada beaches suffer from low oxygen levels due to the high density of nests on the beach and the decay of eggs that break during the arribadas.

It is amazing that a clutch of sea turtle eggs can survive buried 10 – 36 inches under the sand. Oxygen must diffuse from the air down into the sand and egg. Carbon dioxide must move in the opposite direction. A developing sea turtle embryo breathes through its shell just like a chicken embryo, which has the same concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide inside its shell as in a human lung. Sea turtle eggs have similar internal gas concentrations, but there is one difference. The shell of the turtle egg is very porous, facilitating the movement of gases, while the shell of the chicken egg is very durable. Sea turtle egg gas concentrations are determined by the rate at which air can move through the sand and into the egg. Oxygen filters through nearly three feet of sand, through the pores between the grains of sand, then between the eggs in the clutch, and finally into the egg in the middle of the clutch. The main obstacle is the rate of air movement between the sand grains. This three-foot layer of sand acts essentially like the shell of a chicken’s egg or the human air passes into the lung. It serves as the breathing passage for the sea turtle egg.

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