A Closer Look at Cold-Stunned Turtles and How You Can Help

Last week, the North Carolina Aquariums worked with a number of state and federal partners to rescue more than 600 cold-stunned turtles that turned up on the North Carolina coast after the drop in temperature.

Four Questions About Cold-Stunned Turtles

As we shared news of this effort led by the Aquariums, we received several questions about the science of sea turtles and the cold-stunned phenomenon. We consulted with some of the experts at the aquariums and wanted to share some answers they gave us.

What, exactly, does “cold-stunned” mean? Does it cause permanent damage?

“Cold-stunning” is a physical response to cold water temperatures. As the turtle’s body temperature falls, its body systems start to shut down. They become paralyzed with a decreased heart rate and lethargy, followed by shock, pneumonia and possibly death. It’s similar to what happens when humans become hypothermic. 

Often, the turtles are found floating inshore (shallow coastal waters and sounds) or stranded on beaches.

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Is this something that’s seen every year of the North Carolina coast?

Cold-stunning is typically seen each year to some extent along the Eastern Seaboard, starting in the turtles’ northern range (New England) and moving south as seasonal temperatures take effect. In mid-December, the North Carolina Aquariums assisted with a large cold-stunning event that occurred in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, by taking in turtles for rehab.

This year’s cold-stunning event is unique because of its severity. The rapid and drastic change in temperatures led to a record number of cold-stunned turtles. 

In an average season, the N.C. Aquariums might only rehab between 40 and 60 turtles. The season has just begun, and already they have taken in more than 400 turtles.

How are the turtles rehabilitated?

The turtles are assessed by veterinary teams from N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine and state Aquariums husbandry staff. Some simply need time in warmer water temperatures to regain strength and mobility.

Others need extensive care due to infections, pneumonia and injuries. So, there’s a range of treatments depending on the severity.

Members of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Living Collections Section alsovolunteered to rehabilitate seven juvenile green sea turtles that required several weeks of medical care.

Several of the turtles have already been released into the wild.

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Is there a reason mostly green sea turtles are affected?

In cold-stunning events, aquarists typically see juvenile turtles and mostly green and Kemp’s ridley turtles. Each turtle species is sensitive to different water temperatures. Age and size have an effect, too. Greens start to stun when water temperatures reach the mid-50s. Whereas, a larger loggerhead sea turtle might be fine.

There are various theories on why this all happens. One is that the turtles are young and don’t know yet to move closer out to the Gulf Stream as temperatures drop.  Another is that because of the sudden weather change, they just didn’t have time to get out.

Where You Can Learn More

You can learn more about sea turtles by visiting the North Carolina Aquariums on the coast. Though the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island is closed through March. The aquariums at Fort Fisher and Pine Knoll Shores are both open and will offer free admission to everyone on January 18 in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher also has a great educational website on sea turtles that you can explore from the comfort of your own home.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores offers special behind-the-scenes tours, where you can see how sea turtles are cared for.

How You Can Help

Both the N.C. Aquariums and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences need your support to keep doing this important work. Both the aquariums (use promo code:SEATURTLE2016) and the museum accept donations online.