Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles
In the weeks prior to the winter holiday break, Mississippi State College of Veterinary Medicine was contacted by the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, to aid in the intake process of 20 cold-stunned sea turtles from Massachusetts. To provide support to our faculty veterinarians at IMMS, 2 Population Medicine residents and 5 students from our first and second year DVM classes volunteered for the opportunity.
Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles that rely on heat from the environment to maintain their body temperature. Sea turtles typically control their body temperatures by moving between areas of water with different temperatures or basking in the sun at the water’s surface or on the beach. However, when water temperatures rapidly decline and sea turtles are unable to move to warmer waters, they become lethargic and unable to swim, which is a form of hypothermia referred to as cold-stunning. Cold-stunning is typically seen when water temperatures reach 50 degrees F. Cold-stunning can lead to shock, pneumonia, frostbite, and, potentially, death. Cold-stunned sea turtles are at greater risk to be injured by boats or eaten by predators.
In recent years, cold-stunning events have become more frequent as a result of warming sea surface temperatures. The warm waters of the Cape Code peninsula encourage sea turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer. On average, 600 sea turtles have been found cold-stunned along the Cape Cod coast of Massachusetts from late October through December each year. When cold-stunned sea turtles wash ashore, they may appear dead due to a decrease in heart rate and circulation, lowering oxygen levels and severe lethargy. Rescued turtles are transported to local rehabilitation facilities for assessment and life-saving rehabilitation, with the intention of being released back into the wild. In the Northeast, the New England Aquarium (NEAQ), National Marine Life Center (NMLC) and the Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary play a vital role in the rescue response efforts.
More than 800 cold-stunned sea turtles have washed ashore in the 2020-2021 season in Massachusetts, with the vast majority being the endangered Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtles. Other stranded species include, Green (Chelonia mydas) and Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) sea turtles. Of the sea turtles found on Massachusetts beaches many have been debilitated due to hypothermia, pneumonia and other complications.
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is the smallest and most endangered marine turtle. They are found primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, but also in the Atlantic Ocean as far north as Nova Scotia. As the smallest sea turtles, Kemp’s ridleys reach only approximately 2 feet in shell length and weight roughly 100 pounds. Their carapace, or upper shell, is a greenish-grey color, and their plastron, or bottom shell, is off-white to yellowish. Kemp’s ridleys prefer shallow waters, allowing them to dive to the bottom to feed on crabs, jellyfish and other shellfish. The Kemp’s ridleys have been designated as endangered since 1970 under the Endangered Species Act, and are internationally listed as critically endangered. Some of the primary threats to the Kemp’s ridley include threatened nesting habitat, accidental capture in fishing gear, and ocean pollution. NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service share responsibility for helping these endangered turtles recover.
The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) is a non-profit organization established in 1984, located in Gulfport, MS. The IMMS has served as an important educational outlet for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, through its public educational programs, conservation efforts, and research on marine mammals and their environment. IMMS has been rehabilitating sea turtles since 2010, and have rehabilitated over 1,200 sea turtles since their beginning. Along with rehabilitating sea turtles, 50 sea turtles have been released with satellite trackers which allows them to monitor their movement and migration patterns.
Once the rescued sea turtles were stabilized and cleared for transport by NOAA and marine partners in the Northeast, the cold-stunned sea turtles were flown into Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport by volunteer pilots from organization “Turtles Fly Too”. Turtles Fly Too is a nonprofit organization made up of 350 volunteer “turtle flier” pilots who volunteer their time, equipment, and fuel to transport cold-stunned turtles to rehabilitation facilities. Flights shorten travel time and reduces stress on these turtles and other endangered species.
On Monday, December 14, the cold-stunned sea turtles were transported by plane from the Northeast to Gulfport, MS. At the airport, an assembly line of volunteers loaded banana boxes of turtles from the plane into the transport vehicle for transportation back to IMMS where each turtle received a full physical examination, radiographs, ultrasounds, and bloodwork in order to assess health. In addition to physical exam and diagnostics, measurement and pictures were taken of each turtle, to monitor their progress through rehabilitation. The intake process determines the treatment plan for each individual turtle. As part of the initial intake procedures, all turtles were assessed to determine the severity of their disease status, and received antibiotics and fluids as needed. Following intake, the turtles will undergo an intense rehabilitation process and regular examinations prior to being released into the Mississippi Sound. The rehabilitation process involves gradually warming the turtles about 5 to 10 degrees F per day by placing them in shallow tanks of water. If the turtles are warmed too quickly, it can cause serious organ damage and the turtle might not survive. Further emergency treatments include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes, and addressing pneumonia. Turtles may be treated for other serious conditions, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation, and eye damage. The rehabilitation process takes several weeks to months to even years, depending on disease severity.
In an effort to protect and conserve endangered and threatened marine life, including the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, it is important to reduce ocean trash, protect sea turtle habitats, and to keep our distance. Trash in the environment can end up in the ocean and harm marine life. Participation in local and coastal clean-up events, can help keep beaches, oceans, and waterways clean. Reducing plastic consumption by utilizing reusable water bottles and shopping bags, keeps items like these from ending up in oceans and waterways where they can be mistaken for prey and consumed. Seeing a sea turtle in its natural environment is exciting, but it is important to keep a respectful distance, a minimum of 50 yards.
Report any stranded, injured, or entangled marine life by contacting a local stranding network or NOAA Fisheries (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/report), so that appropriate actions can be taken.