Cold Stunned Marine Life

Man what a winter!

Between multiple days below freezing, tough traveling, and the flu it has been a brutal winter season so far.

A dead Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle found in Little Sabine near Pensacola Beach. This turtle died from swallowing monofilament fishing line.
Photo: Betsy Walker

It is not that different for some of our marine wildlife friends. The low temperatures have driven marine water temperatures down as well, particularly in the shallow areas. There have been many reports of cold stunned sea turtles up and down the Florida panhandle – over 900 of them. There have been reports of cold stunned iguanas falling from trees and the loss of pythons in south Florida. The question sometimes comes up – “how do they deal with this apparent return from the dead?”

 

One has to remember we are dealing with reptiles – cold-blooded creatures. Actually, the more correct term is poikilothermic. It really does not pertain to the temperature of their blood but their core body temperature in general. Some animals, like humans, can maintain a constant body temperature, like 98.6°F, no matter what the environmental temperatures are – these are referred to as homotherms. Heterotherms can allow their body temperatures fluctuate within a range – but are in control of their body temperatures. The poikilotherms cannot control their body temperature and are thus at the mercy of the environment – the classic “cold blood”. Some of these poikilotherms have been known to actually freeze and thaw – with no observable problems, not so much for our “warm blooded” friends.

 

So what’s up with the cold-stunned situation?

A dead Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle found in 2014.
Photo: Betsy Walker

Well… even with the “cold bloods”, extreme temperature changes can be very stressful. Some respond by changing their behavior, others their physiology, others both. They will alter their feeding – basically stop. In some, the pH and ion balance within their blood becomes unbalanced, which can trigger the feeding reduction response and increase ion exchange within the lungs. The partial pressure within the venous blood can decrease and this, along with the chemical imbalance and feeding reduction, can trigger a “lethargic” response and even a “floating” response in the marine turtles.

 

Locally, it seems to be the sea turtles who are having the most problems. In south Florida, scientists have noticed the American Crocodile and the invasive pythons struggle with these cold temperatures but the wider ranged American Alligator and numerous species of native snakes do not. The “locals” seem to alter their behavior to adjust for these extreme temperature drops – a method that the tropical species are not practicing. It is known that certain native freshwater turtles over winter in frozen ponds, and diamondback terrapins are known to “hunker down” in muddy bottoms of salt marsh creeks when water temperatures drop below 59°F.

 

With sea turtles, the larger migratory individuals offshore are still moving at 43°F but is the smaller inshore juveniles that are the subject of stunning events. The water temperatures change more rapidly in shallower water and at 43°F, these smaller sea turtles become lethargic and float – which increases their chance of predation. Data suggest that Green Sea Turtles begin to slow activity and Kemps Ridleys become more agitated when water temperatures drop below 68°F, both become dormant, reduce feeding and breathing when they drop below 59°F. It is believed the real problems from being cold stunned are from the reduction of food as much, if not more than, the actual temperature itself. The “cold bloods” bask to increase their body temperatures so that they can actually digest their food.

 

It is a problem frequently encountered along the American east coast but not as much in Florida. However, this year has been different. The staff and volunteers from government agencies and local aquaria have done a champion job rescuing and rehabilitating many of these animals.

 

 

References

 

Mazzotti, F. J., M. S. Cherkiss, M. Parry, J. Beauchamp, M. Rochford, B. Smith, K. Hart, and L. A. Brandt. 2016. Large reptiles and cold temperatures: do extreme cold spells set distributional limits for tropical reptiles in Florida? Ecosphere 7(8):e01439. 10.1002/ecs2.1439

 

Moon D.Y., D.S. MacKenzie, D.W. Owens. 1997. Simulated Hibernation of Sea Turtles in the Laboratory: I. Feeding, Breathing Frequency, Blood PH, and Blood Gases. The Journal of Experimental Zoology. 278: pp. 362-380.

 

Milton, S.A., P.L. Lutz. 2003. The Biology of Sea Turtles, Volume II. Edited P.L. Lutz, J.A. Musick, J. Wyneken. CRC Press. Pp. 510.