Mass Cold-Stunning Event of Sea Turtles of Unprecedented Magnitude in Texas

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An unusual cold snap in Texas has led to a massive cold-stunning event among Texas sea turtles of unprecedented magnitude. By writing this blog post, over 8,000 cold-stunned sea turtle have been recorded along the Texas coast, the majority being juvenile green turtles.

What is “cold stunning”?

Sea Turtles are ectotherm (“cold-blooded”) animals that cannot regulate their body temperature but depend on their environment to do so. They usually need temperatures above 68°F (20°C) to survive. When temperatures drop below 54°F (12°C), and if turtles remain in shallow-water areas that can become very cold very quickly as air temperatures drop, they can become “cold-stunned”. 

“Cold stunning” is a hypothermic reaction that occurs when sea turtles are exposed to cold waters for a prolonged time. Cold stunning can be fatal because sea turtles become lethargic to immobile and experience decreased circulation and slowing of other body functions. Sea turtles in that state are more likely to be hit by boats, eaten by predators, become sick, or die as their bodies shut down.

Once cold-stunned, sea turtles need to be treated; otherwise, there is a good chance they will die. First, sea turtles need an opportunity to rest and raise their body temperatures. They have to be taken out of the cold wind and water into a heated facility, where they will be kept out of water for a few hours or days. If they don’t present any additional illnesses or wounds, they will be released as soon as water temperatures rise above 54°F (12°C).

Why is this of concern?

Texas’s coastal waters are important developing and feeding habitats for green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), and Kemp’s ridleys, loggerheads, and hawksbills have also been observed close to the coast.

The numbers of green turtles in Texas has been rising steadily during the past decade due to intense conservation efforts on Caribbean nesting beaches, protecting eggs and hatchlings. The new generations of green turtles from these beaches use the productive coastal waters around Texas to grow into adults. 

While cold-stunning is a regularly occurring event along the US coast, such a frigid and prolonged cold snap in Texas has only happened a few times in recorded history. The amount of sea turtles, mainly green turtles, affected has also been unprecedented. The last record-breaking cold stun event in Texas was in 2018, where 3,577 green turtles were found and treated.

Texas harbors a large proportion of the next generation of Caribbean green turtle. Such extreme weather events could lead to a mass-die-off, which would be detrimental to the species’ survival in the future.

What has led to the Event in Texas?

An extreme cold snap of temperatures as low as -19°F (-28°C) has led to the rapid cooling of coastal waters and disastrous conditions in the entire state. Texas was ill-prepared for such extreme cold weather resulting in a state of emergency with abysmal road conditions were and millions of households being without power for several days. 

While this cold snap was sudden, it was not unexpected. The effects of human-caused climate change are becoming more apparent each year, and scientific studies have long predicted that extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, cold snaps, and large storms, are likely to become more frequent and more intense.

Because of the planet’s changing climate, many animal species extend their ranges toward the north and south due to increasing temperatures. Sea turtles are no exception. They head farther and farther north to now warmer waters, which result from human-caused climate change, and cold stunning events are becoming more frequent.

Only when we will start fighting climate change will we prevent events such as this one in the future. 

The Silver lining

The event in Texas this past week has shown very graphically the number of sea turtles that depend on coastal waters for survival. Many people were not even aware that Texas harbors sea turtles. Even the scientific community has been stunned (no pun intended) by the number of turtles present in Texas waters nowadays. This large quantity of turtles, especially juveniles, shows that the conservation efforts on nesting beaches throughout the Caribbean successfully produce new generations and give hope for the future.

Another heart-warming aspect of the events was seeing the hundreds of volunteers, including companies such as SpaceX, that stepped up to help the overwhelmed sea turtle centers. People from all over sent donations or patrolled the Texas coast themselves by foot or by boat to look for cold-stunned sea turtles, despite terrible road conditions and gas shortages. The centers worked day and night to process all delivered turtles, while sustained cold temperatures led to power outages making the work challenging and endangered resident turtle patients. The sheer number of cold-stunned turtles quickly surpassed most of the centers’ capacities. Luckily, with united forces, turtles could be kept out of the frigid wind and water for several days in gymnasia and congress centers that opened their doors to help. 

Yesterday, Sea Turtle Inc. released the first 2,220 turtles back into deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where water temperatures are more stable and less susceptible to change.

What can you do to help?

  • Donate equipment to local sea turtle centers and rescuers. Ask them or check their websites for AMAZON wish lists
  • If you live close to the coast or you own a boat, volunteer to look for cold-stunned turtles during cold-snaps in the water. Familiarize yourself with the necessary protocols. Click here:
  • If you are in or around the Gulf of Mexico, please be on the lookout for stranded or bobbing sea turtles and if found, call 866-TURTLE-5 immediately.