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December 10, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Woods Hole Science Aquarium Cares for Cold-Stunned Turtles

Staff have cared for dozens of sea turtles since the 1990s

Three endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles rescued from Cape Cod beaches are recovering at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium (WHSA).

The sea turtles are among the more than 1,000 that have been stunned by the cold and then stranded on Massachusetts beaches and in areas to the south during the past few weeks. Most have washed ashore on Cape Cod, where the cold-stun season is typically November and December. The previous record, set in 2012, was 481 in the northeast region, with 413 of them in Massachusetts. A typical year will have between 50 and 200 cold-stun strandings.

Cold-stunning in sea turtles is similar to hypothermia in humans. It occurs in sea turtles because they are cold-blooded reptiles, so their body temperature is related to the surrounding water temperature. Many turtles move south or offshore to warmer waters in the fall, but others stay closer to shore feeding and are "stunned" by sudden drops in water temperatures.

Many of the cold-stunned turtles found on Cape Cod beaches were initially brought to Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and then sent to the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy, Mass. The Animal Care Center acts much like a hospital triage center by evaluating the condition and injuries of each animal and identifying any complications caused by stranding. Once the turtles are stable, the New England Aquarium sends the animals to smaller facilities such as the Woods Hole Science Aquarium to continue rehabilitation until they have regained full health and can be released back to the wild.

Nicknamed Itchy, Scratchy, and Pinky by Aquarium biologist Kristy Owen, the three turtles are being treated with fluids for dehydration and antibiotics. The WHSA is caring for the recovering animals in a basement pool away from visitors. The turtles have started to eat and are now swimming around their holding tank, often staying near the tank’s heaters.

The largest turtle weighs 2.2 kilograms (4.85 pounds) and is nicknamed Pinky because of the pink numbers 398 painted on its shell. The New England Aquarium numbered each turtle to keep track of the unusually large numbers of animals being evaluated. Itchy, named after a cartoon character from The Simpsons television show, is number 402 and weighs 1.2 kilograms (2.65 pounds). Scratchy, number 415, is named for scratches on its carapace or shell and weighs just 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). All will remain under WHSA care until the summer, when they will be released into warmer ocean waters. The turtles receive regular veterinary care, and get much of their day-to day care from the Aquarium staff and volunteers.

The Woods Hole Science Aquarium has been helping sea turtles recovering from cold-stunning since the 1990s. Prior to this year, WHSA has helped care for 35 turtles: 20 Kemp’s ridley, 3 green, 5 loggerhead, and 7 diamondback terrapins. Diamondback terrapins are a coastal rather than a marine turtle. They are found in marshes and estuaries and are considered threatened under Massachusetts law.

In December 2010 four Kemp’s ridley turtles were cared for by the WHSA; three were released in 2011 but one, named Venus, required further care and was released in July 2012 on Martha’s Vineyard. No turtles were cared for at the WHSA during the past two years.

All marine turtles found in New England waters are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Kemp’s ridley turtles, the smallest of the marine turtles, are listed as endangered, while loggerhead, leatherback and green turtles are listed as threatened.

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