Texas A&M-Galveston group saves sea turtles from chilly death

After last month’s cold snap, green sea turtles were in danger of freezing to death, prompting a group of Texas A&M-Galveston students to help the National Park Service and professor Christopher Marshall rescue the reptiles.  

Special to The Eagle

Last month's arctic freeze that swept across the country made for dangerous conditions for green sea turtles -- and a group from Texas A&M-Galveston stepped in to help.

Along the Gulf of Mexico, as temperatures plummeted, green sea turtles began to shop up in the sand of coastlines along the Gulf of Mexico. Between Texas and Florida, about 2,000 turtles were collected by wildlife rescue organizations. These turtles were nearly immobile and suffering from severe hypothermia, and did not have the strength to swim out to warmer waters.

In Texas, the Padre Island National Seashore, which is an extension of the U.S. National Park Service, worked to scoop up the turtles trapped on land or in the shallows and rushing them to a laboratory belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to receive veterinary care and warmth.

Because of the enormity of the task, the National Park Service contacted professor Christopher Marshall of A&M-Galveston's marine biology program, who gathered six students and took them to NOAA's laboratory to help process the nearly 200 turtles.

"These are pretty decent-sized animals," Marshall said. "And when you have so many of them, you need to bring in a whole team."

For three days, Marshall and his students would measure and tag the animals and help sort and triage those who could be saved. Veterinary professionals then took command of each reptile. The turtles had trouble moving and were lethargic, Marshall explained. If a turtle had swum in water colder than 50 degrees for too long, their muscles would be rendered immobile and they would lose the ability to travel or even breathe.

"It just got so cold so quickly," he said. "Green sea turtles swim in shallow water, but they will swim out to deeper, warmer water when it's cold. But, this all just happened so fast."

The 2,000 turtles saved along the coastline was likely only a fraction of the green sea turtle population, Marshall said, but the species is considered threatened in this region. After several days of warming up and receiving care, many of the 200 Texas turtles were rehabilitated and returned to the sea.

"The silver lining of all of this is that my group gained a huge learning experience," he said.

The six students who accompanied Marshall to the NOAA laboratory were members of his group The Upper Texas Coast Sea Turtle Patrol. Normally, the club works to collect sea turtles who are laying their eggs on the Galveston beaches and transport the eggs to a safe incubator site on Padre Island. Marshall suspects that a few of his students will probably continue to work with turtles after graduation, while others might go on to perform research on marine biology or join an institution such as NOAA.

Regardless, he feels this opportunity to help rescue suffering animals was rewarding and unique to the budding scientists.

"Getting this kind of hands-on experience really boosts the students' confidence," Marshall said. "It provides them a great opportunity to work with marine life."

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