UT Scientists Rescue Sea Turtles From the Cold


As several powerful cold fronts swept across Texas in late November and early December, the dropping temperatures have left dozens of stunned sea turtles in their wake.

Young green sea turtles that live along the Texas coast forage on algae and seagrass, especially in the Laguna Madre, which separates Padre Island from the mainland. Temperatures in its shallow waters can drop rapidly. Combine that with plummeting air temperatures and high winds and you have a recipe for disaster for reptiles unable to control their body temperature.

“With very cold water temperatures, 50 degrees or lower, turtles become immobilized,” says Donna Shaver, chief of the division of sea turtle science and recovery at Padre Island National Seashore. “They float on the surface or they are blown ashore by winds. In this condition, they are defenseless and, if not rescued, generally will perish.”

Fortunately, this wasn’t the first cold-weather rodeo for Texas scientists. A network of volunteers is trained to patrol the bays and beaches for cold-stunned sea turtles, which are taken to facilities along the coast. One of those is the Animal Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, which rescues and rehabilitates sick or injured marine life in and around Mustang, San Jose, and the Padre Islands. As of Dec. 15, 315 cold-stunned sea turtles had been documented on the Texas coast, 265 of which made it to a rehabilitation facility. One hundred of them went to the ARK.

At the ARK, employees and volunteers place the stunned turtles on towels in small wading pools. After about a day, they warm up enough to be moved to water tanks. Unlike many other species, green sea turtles get along well together. “Right now, the entire facility is dedicated to housing them,” says ARK research associate Anthony Amos. “Our largest concrete tank contains probably about 80 or 85 turtles.”

Amos, who sports a charming British accent, an impressive white beard, and a sun-tanned face, has walked the Port Aransas beach every other morning since 1978. He first came across animals in distress following the IXTOC oil spill off the Yucatan coast of Mexico and began using existing tanks at the MSI to rehabilitate sea turtles. The first cold-stun event he recalls was in 1983. At first, cold-stunned animals were held for the entire winter, but a severe event in 2010 filled facilities to the brim, necessitating release of sea turtles once the weather warmed up. That approach seemed to work, and most of the turtles from this year’s first cold-stun event, Nov. 25-30, were released on Dec. 4. Turtles are released from the beach and typically will be taken south by prevailing currents.

Releasing that many sea turtles is a big job, but Amos is more worried about another cold front on the way. “The water temperature is still on a downward trend,” he says, and hovering at 52 degrees. With 50 degrees likely fatal to a sea turtle, that may mean holding on to these animals a little longer. ARK staff collects sea lettuce from nearby rocks and jetties to feed the herbivorous green sea turtles, supplemented by other greens and squid bought in bulk.

Amos and his team already have their hands full, but, he says, if another cold front leaves more stunned turtles in its wake,“We’ll find places to put them.”

Above: Amos and a member of the Padre Island National Seashore staff release a sea turtle  from the first cold-stun event in November.

Photo courtesy National Park Service.



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