Uncommon cold in south threatens marine species

21 01 2010

The carcass of a Kemp's Ridley sea turtle was found by Seanetter Ralph Marotti on Cape Cod yesterday

Residents of Cape Cod are sadly familiar with the sight of cold-stunned sea turtles washing up on the beaches when the weather turns cold here. Volunteers patrol the shores on the Cape searching for the nearly lifeless animals and transport them to the New England Aquarium for treatment and eventual transport to the warm waters off Florida. But what is a reptile to do when even that refuge turns frigid?

A stretch of cold weather record-setting in its duration has settled in over the southeastern U.S. in recent weeks. While New Englanders are accustomed to wayward turtles getting chilled in the northern waters, unprecedented numbers of animals in shallow waters around Florida have been found cold-stunned. The majority of the sea turtles affected by the cold weather are green turtles, a federally listed endangered species. Other species include Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill, both endangered, and the loggerhead, a threatened species.

Fish kills have also become increasingly common as persistent cold weather drops the temperature even in deeper waters where fish usually shelter until the temperatures rise again. Snook, a particularly sensitive species, have been severely affected, but tarpon, bonefish and numerous other fishes have washed up in unusual numbers.

US Fish and Wildlife biologist, Pete Tuttle, makes notes near a pile of dead pelicans. (photo courtesy USFWS)

Members of the public in Alabama came across a bizarre scene on Sand Island in Alabama, where the carcasses of over a hundred birds, mostly juvenile Brown Pelicans, were found in piles, suggesting that they may have huddled together behind the dunes for warmth. A few Least Terns were also found dead. US Fish and Wildlife biologists suspect that the birds died of hypothermia, but have submitted a number of carcasses to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin for necropsy.

The long-term effects of these die-offs will likely differ between species; over 80 percent of the cold stunned turtles were successfully rehabilitated and released, and biologists do not anticipate any substantial effect on their populations. Scientists are less certain about the fish species and the impacts on them may prove significant.

SEANET will keep you posted, as always, if and when any additional news comes from the frigid south, good or bad.

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