Historic cold stun event in Texas

I’m sure many of you have been seeing the news and social media posts about the ongoing events down in Texas related to the winter storm. In addition to millions of citizens without power, heat, or water, the weather has affected the state’s marine life as well. Endangered sea turtles have been collected by the thousands during the largest cold stun event in the state’s history. So many have come in that the majority are currently being housed in the nearby convention center after the South Padre Island rehabilitation center run by Sea Turtle Inc. (https://seaturtleinc.org/) filled up.

Photo Credit: Sanjuana Zavala of Sea Turtle Inc.

But what exactly is a “cold stun” and why is it such a problem for turtles?

Sea turtles are ectothermic – meaning they do not generate their own body heat like we do. Instead, they rely on their surrounding environment to keep their bodies within a reasonable temperature. In many cases, if the water conditions become uncomfortable, sea turtle can simply move to another location such as deeper water or further south. But, if the conditions change too quickly or the turtles can’t otherwise move, the turtles are forced to hunker down. If the water temperature drops below approximately 50°F (10°C), their metabolism slows to a crawl and they become lethargic or “cold stunned”. If they stay in this state too long or their body temperature continues to drop, cold stunned turtles can die due to hypothermia, drowning, or predation. This temperature threshold is approximate because sea turtle temperature tolerance varies widely across species and body sizes. For instance, the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) can survive in waters just above freezing through some unique physiological adaptations!

Photo Credit: Texas Game Wardens

Cold stun events are not unique to Texas but rather occur throughout the world. For example, the New England Aquarium regularly flies cold stunned turtles from Massachusetts to Florida each winter. However, the shear number of turtles – primarily green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) – involved in this event is unprecedented!

Many sea turtle managers, local volunteers, and concerned citizens have contributed to ongoing recovery and rehabilitation efforts for these turtles including donations such as massive commercial generator from SpaceX. Once the turtles are warmed back up and the weather conditions permit, most of these cold stunned turtles will be released back into the wild. Unfortunately, some percentage will not survive their ordeal.

Photo Credit: Ed Caum of the City of South Padre Island

Regardless of the outcome, thank you to all those helping with these important conservation efforts! If you see a cold stunned turtle, be sure to report it to your local sea turtle monitoring group or local, state, or federal wildlife management organization!

If you would like to donate to Sea Turtle Inc. to help with their rescue activities, you can do so at https://seaturtleinc.org/2021-cold-stunned-turtles/. Sea Turtle Inc. has been posting regular updates about their activities across their social media profiles including Instagram (@seaturtleinctx) and Facebook (@SeaTurtleConservation).

Published by Ware Research

I'm a coastal ecologist with a PhD in Biological Oceanography from Florida State University in the Marine Sea Turtle Research, Ecology, and Conservation Group (FSU MTRECG), as well as a PADI Master SCUBA Diver Trainer. My current research with sea turtles in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, past research with coral reef restoration, and diving background have taken me all over the world - which is a mixed blessing with my photography hobby! Enjoy the posts on this site, check in often to stay up-to-date on my research, and please email me (mw15w@my.fsu.edu) if you have any questions about anything on this site!

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