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NC State Faculty Respond to Record Number of Cold Stunned Sea Turtles

green sea turtles cold stunned on the beach in cape lookout
Recording green sea turtle cold suns near Cape Lookout, January 20th

Cold Stun Syndrome, a debilitating state of hypothermia seen in sea turtles along the Atlantic Coast of North America, is a concern every winter.

This winter, however, an unseasonably warm December, followed by precipitous drops in temperature after the New Year, caught a record number of young green sea turtles inshore where they are vulnerable to Cold Stun Syndrome. As a result, the beaches and shorelines of North Carolina were littered with unfortunate juvenile green, loggerhead, and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles who were taking advantage of the food in the NC sounds when the cold snap hit rather than having migrated out to the warmer waters of the Sargassum as they normally would have done.

Nearly 1,000 animals were found between January 5th and 7th alone, with a second wave bringing numbers up to approximately 1,600 affected animals. Incapacitated by the cold, these turtles would suffer a slow, wintry demise without the concentrated rescue efforts of stranding responses up and down the coast.

For such large numbers of affected animals, triage is an unfortunate feature of the rescue effort. NC State faculty and residents that are part of the Environmental Medicine Consortium working out of the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology and the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island, are heavily involved in examining and triaging the large numbers of turtles recovered by NC sea turtle stranding response participants. Drs. Craig Harms and Emily Christiansen usually bear the brunt of these long days and nights but Drs. Greg Lewbart, Suzanne Kennedy-Stoskopf, and Michael Stoskopf also pitched in and helped as clinicians in the triage effort. Dr. Kim Thompson, a third-year resident, was the house officer on duty helping assess the many turtles arriving by the truck load from the beaches.

The least affected turtles, based on quick triage evaluation, received fluids and were warmed slowly for a re-release into warmer waters after being marked and receiving an implanted chip to confirm their identity if found again later. To date, more than 500 turtles in this category have made their way safely into the Gulf Stream or the kinder climates off the coast of Florida thanks to the sea turtle rescue programs in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and the United States Coast Guard.

Some animals require more extensive treatment to recover. After initial triage, veterinary care givers at rehabilitation centers and other facilities are nursing these turtles through their challenges which can include pneumonia, severe skin lesions, joint problems, and general poor condition. The most serious cases are being managed at the major sea turtle rehabilitation centers such as the STAR Center and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City.

Ordinarily the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center may see 30 to 40 cold stun cases throughout the winter, but they are currently housing approximately 90 turtles, nearly all of which are recovering from cold stun.

Veterinary nursing teams at the aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, the Greensboro Science Center, and Charlotte-Concord SEA LIFE are housing rescued turtles providing them with the necessary care to establish their health for future release into the sea next spring when water temperatures allow.

Managing the unprecedented volume of cases this year requires unprecedented levels of communication and coordination. The round-the-clock dedication of participating organizations and volunteers statewide means that hundreds of turtles now have a second chance at survival.

Reposted from an article written by Mary Doerr, a graduate student in the Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences Program, for the Environmental Medicine Consortium web page.