A Texas A&M University at Galveston group is working to save as many sea turtles as possible after thousands were affected by last week’s record low water temperatures along the Texas coast.
Unusually frigid water can stun the turtles, putting them into a nearly comatose state. As their body temperature falls, sea turtles can quickly die.
Christopher Marshall, professor in marine biology at Texas A&M-Galveston and director of the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research, said he has responded to more than 150 turtles and treated about 70 of them in the sea turtle facility over the past three days.
“Because of the severity of this weather event, sea turtles could literally freeze to death just as a human does,” Marshall said.
The Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research works with the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network to help save the turtles. More than 100 volunteers including students, area naturalists and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department personnel are contributing to the effort.
Marshall and volunteers have been putting the rescued turtles into plastic containers with moist towels, then placing them in a 60-degree room for about 24 hours. During this time, Marshall said the turtles are examined by a veterinarian. If they are given medical clearance and pass a swim test, the turtles are placed in water-filled tanks until they can be released back into their natural habitats. Those that are not given clearance are given medication and remain at the facility for treatment.
The center works closely with the Houston Zoo for veterinary oversight.
“We try to return the healthy sea turtles back to the wild as soon as possible,” he said. “It can be as fast as two to three days, but it depends on weather and water temperatures. We will return them to the Gulf of Mexico, not Galveston Bay, because the Gulf water is warmer.”
Marshall and his group are treating all green sea turtles, which are prone to cold stunning. In the Gulf of Mexico there are five species of sea turtles: green, loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill and leatherback. The first three species are the most common.
“This cold-stunning event has been very difficult,” Marshall said. “The mortality rate is about 50% or more. We are still responding to sea turtles so the numbers – both alive and dead – are still increasing. However, the best part of the job is watching a released sea turtle swim away to live its life in our coastal waters.”
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