USGS scientists coordinate the rescue of over 60 sea turtles in cold weather snap
Federally-protected sea turtles’ populations are at risk without human intervention
When water temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it can mean life or death for Endangered Species Act-protected sea turtles. But scientists at the U.S. Geological survey are doing something about it.
A recent drop in temperatures across the Florida Panhandle prompted the USGS in collaboration with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assemble a sea turtle-rescuing effort.
Between Jan. 17-24, 2024, USGS scientists helped retrieve and transport more than 60 cold-stunned sea turtles from St. Joseph Bay, Florida, to Gulf World Marine Institute, where they will be rehabilitated and released into the Gulf of Mexico once water temperatures warm.
Margaret Lamont, a USGS research biologist who has studied sea turtles for nearly 30 years, explained that when cold-blooded sea turtles become too cold, they are unable to swim, or even lift their heads out of the water to breathe. This can lead to the protected animals either drowning or being pushed ashore where they are unable to fend off predators.
“It’s actually like when you’re really, really cold and you can’t move your fingers or your toes,” Lamont explained.
During rehabilitation at Gulf World Marine Institute, veterinarian staff there provide the medical care necessary to save these turtles. This time in rehab also gives researchers a chance to gain data about the animals.
Losing sea turtles in a mass casualty event caused by cold weather could have lasting impacts to an already compromised population, Lamont said.
“The mortality rates have gone down significantly for these events since our first large cold stun in 2001 due to our improved response as we’ve learned what works best,” she explained, noting that without human intervention, many more sea turtles may have died.
Florida is home to three species of sea turtles that were rescued during the recovery effort; green turtles, Kemp’s ridleys, and loggerheads. Lamont noted that rescue events like this are not planned in advance but rather in response to prolonged cooler water temperatures.
While the USGS and other organizations are active in coordinated efforts to recover stunned sea turtles, Lamont explained that if members of the public encounter a sea turtle in distress, they should not touch it, but instead call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert number at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922).
Lamont expressed her appreciation for all of the volunteers that help with these kinds of events and the cooperation needed to make them possible.
Additional volunteers in the rescue effort included Indian Pass Turtle Patrol, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Rish State Park and the Florida Coastal Conservancy.
“We need a ton of volunteers for this type of event. It’s an amazing, collaborate effort that’s really valuable to us. Everyone comes together—I can’t stress that enough,” she said.
To learn more about USGS sea turtle research, please visit the USGS sea turtle project page: https://www.usgs.gov/centers/wetland-and-aquatic-research-center/science/science-topics/sea-turtles.
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