Cape Cod Cold Stunning

cold stunned

As winter draws nearer and water temperatures begin to drop the Northeastern coasts see a greater influx of sea turtle strandings. The number of sea turtle strandings, especially in the Massachusetts area, can reach up to several hundred in number. Why is that we see a higher percentage of sea turtles washed up on our beaches around this time? What is it about sea turtles that makes them so susceptible? Is there anything we can do to help?

Penny is a Diamondback Terrapin being treated at the National Marine Life Center for shell deterioration due to complications caused by cold stunning.

What “Cold Stunning” is:

Cold stunning is a term used to describe the condition a sea turtle is in when exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures. Massachusetts water temperature drops abruptly and rapidly around winter time, so when migrating turtles swim south to warmer latitudes they are often unprepared to adapt and survive this sudden shift in temperature.  These turtles are further impeded in their migratory path when swimming south into the “arm” of the Cape; with nowhere else to go and with temperatures around them dropping quickly, the animal becomes lethargic or immobile, making them incredibly susceptible to any number of dangers.  Drifting in the water or washed up on a beach, sea turtles are at great risk of predation, disrupted immune system, and further drop in body temperature.

What Makes Sea Turtles Susceptible:

Sea turtles are ectotherms, organisms that regulate their temperature through environmental heat sources (unlike endotherms that regulate temperature through body heat).  This is one of the primary reasons for their seasonal migration to warmer latitudes.  The longer the turtle remains in colder water temperatures, the more at risk it is of compromising its own body temperature and thus needs to seek warmer waters.  Unfortunately, a great deal of sea turtles do not begin this migration until it is too late.  Slowly but surely these sea turtles reach a state of being “cold stunned”.

How NMLC is Helping:

The National Marine Life Center is one of several marine animal rehabilitation centers along the east coast that cares for and treats cold stunned sea turtles.  Some years NMLC treats anywhere from 2-3 turtles, and other years up to 11.  When the turtles arrive at the center they receive an extensive intake exam; we look for and record all wounds and trauma, check their heart rate and body temperature, take blood tests and radiographs.  Incubators are often used to slowly warm the animals body temperature.  Eventually the animal is transitioned back into water, where we relocate them to one of small turtle tanks or large turtle pools.  When the patient is fully recovered and the local waters have warmed up again the animal is ready for release!

What You Can do to Help:

The best thing to do if you encounter a cold stunned sea turtle on the beach is to contact your local stranding network.  Trained specialists from the stranding network will pick up the animal and eventually bring it to a marine mammal hospital, such as the National Marine Life Center, for treatment.  If you have to leave before the stranding network can get to the animal, distinctly mark the area and notify them how you marked it so the specialist can effectively locate it.  If you’re interested in volunteering and being trained to locate and rescue cold stunned sea turtles, try to get involved with your local stranding network!