Posts Tagged ‘turtle’

First Cold-Stunned Sea Turtle of 2008 Rescued

Friday, October 24th, 2008

The Cape Cod Times, “Kemp’s Ridley Turtle Found Stranded,” reports this morning, “The first cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley [sea] turtle of the stranding season was rescued in local waters yesterday [October 23rd], according to the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.”  Bob Prescott, director of the sanctuary, noted that the turtle weighed about 8 pounds and was estimated at around four years old.  It had an old boat propellor injury on its left front flipper that may have weakened the turtle and predisposed this animal to early cold-stunned stranding.

Cold-Stunned Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (File Photograph)

Cold-stunned strandings of endangered sea turtles occur each fall in Cape Cod Bay.  These juvenile reptiles, usually two to five years old, become trapped by walls of cold ocean water within the warmer hook of Cape Cod during normal southward migration as temperatures drop early each fall.  When bay water plunges to around 50F, these turtles become cold-stunned, enter a stupor-like state and are tossed on the beach by sustained winds.

The earliest standed turtles, usually found in late October or early November, have the smallest mass, weighing in at five pounds or less.  As the season progresses, larger and larger animals succumb to cold-stunning and are tossed by autumn storms onto the beach.  Species include Kemp’s ridleys, green sea turtles and loggerheads, which are the more massive and usually the last ones to strand.  Occasionally, a hybrid or a hawksbill has been known to strand on Cape Cod beaches.  All strandings, with only an exception or two to prove the rule, occur on bayside beaches from Provincetown to Sandwich, with the greatest numbers found between Truro and Dennis.

Yesterday afternoon’s turtle was discoverd by beach walkers on Sandy Neck beach in Barnstable, brought to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for stabilization, and then transported to New England Aquarium for medical treatment and rehabilitation.

Two-Year-Old Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Rescued from Chapin Beach, Dennis

You may recall that the Turtle Journal team rescued a small, pre-stunned Kemp’s Ridley at nearby Chapin Beach in Dennis on September 5th (see Saving a Critically Endangered Sea Turtle).

What to Do if You Find a Sea Turtle

Sea turtles are federally protected and cannot be legally handled without an appropriate license.  If you see a sea turtle in distress on the beach, NEVER return it to the water.  Move it above the high water mark, cover it with dry seaweed to prevent additional hypothermia, mark the spot with some gaudy flotsam and call Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary at 508-349-2615 as soon as possible.  If your call comes “after hours,” you may leave a message on the sanctuary line or you can call the 24/7 turtle hot line at 508-274-5108 any time of the day or night.  The Turtle Journal team will answer your call and respond immediately to rescue the animal.

Tiny Hatchling Beats Cold Front by a Nose

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Three Gram Second-Chance Terrapin Hatchling

“There’s always one more.”  That’s the motto of the Paludal Posse, our terrapin research and conservation team on Outer Cape Cod.  There’s always one more nest to find, one more nest to hatch, one more turtle in the nest, one more hatchling to emerge, one more turtle to save.  In short, there’s always one more.  And so it was proven again this weekend as we prepared our last batch of terrapin hatchlings for release on Tuesday, a promised mild October day.

Terrapin Hatchling and Second-Chance Egg from Nest 996

Sue counted 20 second-chance hatchlings soaking in 70F water to prepare for their sprint to freedom.  Second-chance hatchlings?  What the heck are second-chance hatchlings?  As we harvest emerging nests that have mostly hatched and other nests that have been exposed by predators, we often find a couple of unhatched eggs left behind.  Most of these eggs are in good shape and need only a couple days more incubation.  A few, though, look pretty sad; dimpled, dented, dehydrated, discolored, and so on.  These eggs wouldn’t make it in the wild.  Still, we prefer to give every turtle egg a chance even if it has only a small probability of survival.  So, these long-shot eggs go into our mystical, magical second-chance bucket, filled wtih clean, moist natal sand and warmed first naturally in our sun room until early October and then under a heat lamp in our lab until successfully hatched or all hope is exhausted.  We always have Halloween hatchlings, usually have Thanksgiving babies and occasionally find a pair of cute dark eyes staring up at us on Christmas morning.  (ASIDE:  Can there be a more powerful holiday message?) 

So, as Sue collected the 20 lucky babies for their trip back into the wild, she scanned the second-chance bucket and yelled in exclamation, “We’ve got another one!”  To which I sagely replied, “Yep.  There’s always one more.”

Perfect October Day for Second-Chance Hatchling Release

We made it to Turtle Point on Lieutenant Island while the weather held; 63F, gentle breeze and warming sunshine.  But a careful look at the clouds streaming above reminded us that a storm front approached. 

2nd Chance Hatchling and 20 Siblings Released at Turtle Point

The sand at Turtle Point had baked through the morning and reflected warmth as we sat down to release our 21 charges.  Placing them in a single bunch near the wrack line on the downward sloping dune, we watched as they scattered in random directions and power bursts.  Soon they had all disappeared into the nursery surroundings, some into upland vegetation, others into downland wrack and Spartina salt marsh, and still others burrowed into the warm dune sand.

Last Sailboat Dances with Northeast Blow in Blackfish Creek

Within an hour the weather had closed in.  The cold front arrived with gusts whistling across the narrow Outer Cape peninsula from the North Atlantic.  Clouds massed and grayed; white caps appeared; and we were doused in cold droplets whether from rain or briny spray we couldn’t tell.

“There’s Always One More” Egg in Second-Chance Bucket

Back in our warm, comfortable lab office Tuesday evening we inventoried our terrapin assets.  Tanks empty and ready.  Second-chance bucket filled with potential.  And our hopes high for one more miracle.

Two-Ton Vehicle Versus Quarter Ounce Hatchling

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Due to human development and associated pressures, some of the best remaining nesting sites for diamondback terrapins on the Outer Cape are one-lane dirt roads that abut salt marsh nursery ecosystems for hatchlings. Obviously, roadways are extremely dangerous for the female as she spends more than 30 minutes digging her nest, depositing her eggs and covering it once again.  Because these compacted roadways are so hard, and her nest sculpting creates a natural arch to spread the load of vehicular traffic, the eggs appear to do fine through June, July and August as they incubate under the summer sun.

Female Terrapin Nesting in Middle of Dirt Road

But when hatchlings begin to pip and squirm about in the nest, and when one or more begins to tunnel to the surface leaving an emergence hole in the road, then the architectural integrity that served so well during incubation is compromised.  Weight no longer is evenly distributed, and the egg chamber compresses and begins to collapse under the stress. 

Emergence Hole in Middle of Marsh Road on Lieutenant Island

I discovered this little (3 gram) hatchling wedged under the lip of the nest that had been collapsing under the day’s traffic.  Two of its siblings had already been crushed in the center of the egg chamber.

Premie Hatchling Distorted by Road Traffic

In addition to problems with its distorted shape, its eggshell had been invaded by fly maggots that were trying to find a vulnerable orifice to invade.  I had to hand-pick these nasty predators from the tiny hatchling.  Based on experience, I know that this critter will now do quite well.  With a little time, some warm hydration and a bit of TLC, its shell will resume a normal shape and it should be ready to be released into the wild within a few days to a week.

Emerged Terrapin Hatchling Run Over on Marsh Road

I wish the same could be said for another sibling (above) that I found a foot outside the nest and squished in the south tire track of the dirt road.  It’s a dangerous world for a turtle hatchling.  Few survive to tell the tale of their harrowing youth.  But with a little luck and a guardian angel or two, one turtle at a time can be saved and the whole world along with it.

Close-Up of Rescued Distorted Hatchling

Saving a Critically Endangered Sea Turtle

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Nature’s Classroom Teachers Find Endangered Sea Turtle

In keeping with the theme of this web site, “Saving the World One Turtle at a Time,” opportunity came knocking across the ether at 11:30 this morning.  Five teachers from Nature’s Classroom (http://www.naturesclassroom.org/Yarmouth.htm) had traveled to Chapin Beach in Dennis for field orientation on the last day before school resumes next week.  They spotted an apparently lethargic ”sea turtle” in a shallow tidal pool.  While most folks would have walked on by figuring that the incoming tide would handle the situation, or while someone else might have made the absolutely wrong choice of tossing the turtle into the sea to fend for itself, the Nature’s Classroom teachers took action.  They called the sea turtle stranding center at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (508-349-2615) to report the sighting.  The sanctuary called us and the game was afoot. 

Speaking over cell phone with the teachers, we learned that they had a fairly good handle on what constituted a sea turtle, but they were unsure of its species.  We asked that they remain with the animal while we sped to their location … about a 45 minute drive.  As we reached Chapin Beach, the tide was flooding across the tidal flats with a vengeance.  Two teachers were “escorting” the sea turtle in the shallows between sandbars.  A brief look was enough to identify the animal as a Kemp’s ridley, one of the rarest and most critically endangered sea turtles in the world.  By size we could estimate its age at two to two and a half years old.  In other words, this animal was the typical juvenile sea turtle that we find cold-stunned on Cape Cod beaches from late October to December.  But the cold-stunning season is still six or seven weeks in the future.
 
 
Don Lewis Holds Rescued Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
 
En route to the beach, we had alerted the New England Aquarium that we were responding to this potential sea turtle stranding.  Now we called them back with the species identification and our assessment of the animal’s condition.  There were early indications, beyond its lethargic behavior when first observed by the teachers, of the potential for future cold-stunning.  The right rear quadrant of its carapace was covered with brown algae; algae was also beginning to form on the rear of the turtle’s plastron.  There was a coating of algae on the top of the animal’s head and some algae buildup on the trailing edge of both front flippers.  There were a few dings on the keel as though it had been wave-tossed against a rock groin or breakwater.  When we observe turtles of this size during the outset of the cold-stunning season, we see the same, but much more extensive, indicators.  At least by the time we arrived on the scene, this sea turtle had become quite strong and active.

Rescued Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Story in Video)

In conversations with the aquarium and by proxy with NOAA, we weighed three options: immediate release on site, medical examination at New England Aquarium, or immediate release on the southern side of Cape Cod into Nantucket Sound … so that it wouldn’t get trapped by cold waters within the bay and become hypothermic and cold-stun a month of so hence.  Based on our field assessment, the decision was made for us to release the animal into Nantucket Sound from a southern Cape Cod beach. 

We crated the sea turtle for transport in our Element.  (Thank the gods of science that field researchers always come equipped for field emergencies!)  We began the trek across the Cape with a short stop to visit with our friend & colleague Kara Dodge, currently a PhD candidate at UNH and formerly a NOAA sea turtle coordinator.  She had flipper and PIT tags to append and to insert, and it gave us a nice quiet space to acquire the morphometric information we always document for sea turtles found in Cape Cod Bay.
 
 
Don Lewis Reads Caliper and Kara Dodge Records Data
 
Next we rendezvoused at the beach with a photographer from the Cape Cod Times whom we had alerted while driving from Dennis.  With sea turtle stranding season only a few weeks in the future, we didn’t want to miss this opportunity to use a photo-op to make people aware of what’s coming and what they should do and who they should contact.  By 3:15 in the afternoon we had released this fully charged sea turtle into the sound.  When we let it go into the oncoming surf, the turtle exploded forward like a hotrod leaving salt spray rather than rubber as it accelerated from zero to sixty faster than you could say, “Kemp’s ridley.”
 
 
Release of Rescued Kemp’s Ridley into Nantucket Sound
 
Finding a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle in Cape Cod Bay other than on the beach during the cold-stunning season is an extremely rare event.  There has only been one other such happening several years ago of which I am personally aware.  In that case the decision was made to tag it and release it back into Cape Cod Bay with an extremely unsatisfactory outcome a month or so later.  This time we maximized the odds that one of the most critically endangered species would have one more juvenile turtle to grow into adulthood and help restore its population.  We hope to see this turtle’s flipper tags or detect its PIT tag on a nesting beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico in another 15 or 20 years.  Or at least we hope that our successors in turtle conservation will see the fruit of today’s adventure in a couple of decades.  (ASIDE:  We’ve always considered it a bit unfair that sea turtles outlive sea turtle researchers.)
 
A hearty bravo to Nature’s Classroom without whose intelligent action this morning, nothing good would have come of today’s event.  And thanks also to a team of dedicated volunteers and professionals from Mass Audubon, the New England Aquarium, UNH and NOAA who responded to the challenge, made the best decision for the animal’s survival and flawless executed its impromptu rescue and release.  And that’s how we intend to save the world:  one turtle at a time.
 
 
Don Lewis Releases Endangered Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

Tracking Terrapin Hatchlings

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Where do hatchlings go once they flee the nest? Using various methods of inference and observation, we have determined that some hatchlings race to the wrack line for safety, others scramble further into the salt marsh grasses and still others opt to remain upland for at least the first winter of their “hidden” years.

Terrapin Hatchling Track Heads Down Turtle Pass Dune

Let’s follow some clues, some tracks and some hatchlings to test these hypotheses.  The high dune of Turtle Pass seems the place to start as we discover a hatchling track descending from an emergence nest atop the dune and heading seaward.

Tracks Assume Colorful Tints as Sun Dances Behind Clouds

Down we go along the shifting slope that morphs in shape and color as shadows dance through the contours of the dune.

Close-Up with Tail Mark Bisecting Track

Let’s experience the descent as though we were a newborn hatchling on its first ski run down the slopes.

Follow Tracks to Hatchling Buried in Salt Marsh Wrack

So, our first experiment leads to the discovery of a hatchling burrowed into the landward edge of the wrack line, buried under last winter’s deposit of salt hay.

But our day isn’t over as we encounter another set of hatchlings scaling the bearberry covered banks off 5th Avenue and passing through an exquisite clump of sea lavender en route to safety.

Terrapin Hatchling Scrambles to Reach Salt Marsh

These little critters eschew the wrack line, which to them seems like a clear cut jungle of logs, and head directly into the thick matting of Spartina patens in the salt marsh system separating east and west sections of Lieutenant Island.