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Unseasonable Water Temps Can Hurt Terrapins - December 4, 2016

One day temperatures are in the 60s and the next in the 30s. The third week of November seals are spotted in the Delaware surf and a week later tiny Diamondback terrapin turtles appear in the streets of Ocean City.

We live in a coastal region; therefore, we experience more dramatic changes than inland areas due to water temperatures. Water temperatures impact storm velocities as we’ve seen in the past few years, which either hinder or enhance the strength of a hurricane. Water temperatures of late have provided us with unseasonably warm days and foggy mornings with school delays.  Unseasonable temperatures impact not only us, but our native turtle species as well.

During the winter months, our native terrestrial turtles hibernate. Diamondback terrapins normally stop eating when the bay water temperatures hit about 60 degrees, according to Barbara Brennessel, author of “Diamonds in the Marsh.” When the temperatures begin to average 60, they generally start to burrow down in the mud in the bays and hibernate for the winter.

Juvenile terrapins, two years and younger, prefer fresher water and tend to stay in the estuaries over winter. Therefore, when you have a small stretch of days where the temperatures hit the 60s, these fellas become alert and will wander about. Because they are small, they are easy targets for predators such as birds and foxes. Birds will often pluck them from the estuaries and drop them on a hard surface in an attempt to open them. This is one theory as to why people have been finding them the past few weeks.

If unable to open the shells, the birds will abandon the live turtle. If you find one, take it to a marshy part of the bay and release it. If it dives, it means it’s healthy. If it floats and won’t dive, it probably needs some attention from a rehabber. A terrapin that floats is key sign that it is in distress.

An interesting trait of terrapin hatchlings is that they are relatively freeze-tolerant. They can withstand freezing temperatures, to a point, during its first two years.  However, if there is a major storm event during freezing temperatures where hatchings are washed out from their hibernated state, they need to be rehabbed as they cannot survive being released back into freezing waters.

Box turtles also tend move about within their two acres domain when temperatures hit the 60s, and burrow back into the mud or dirt once the winter chill sets back in. Unfortunately the allure of our gentle native attracts people to take them into their homes as a temporary pet. Once a box turtle is taken into a home for a few days during the winter, if released back into the wild, it will most likely be the demise of the turtle. Your home provides unnatural temperatures to our natives and will throw its system out of whack, so to speak.  It is always best to leave our natives in their environment.

In the event you find a box turtle wandering in the winter and notice a lump on either side of its head, this means the turtle is in distress and needs help. Unfortunately our box turtles are susceptible to ear infections. In the event they experience an ear infection, it throws their system off and they are unable to hibernate and need attention.

And lastly there are our sea turtles. They do not hibernate, they migrate. This is the time of year when we experience cold stunning in our area. The term “cold stunning” refers to the hypothermic reaction that occurs when sea turtles are exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures. Initial symptoms include a decreased heart rate, decreased circulation, and lethargy, followed by shock, pneumonia, and possibly death.

According to research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, sea turtles commonly found in waters off the mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. during the summer and early fall typically begin to migrate south by late October. It is largely unknown why some sea turtles do not migrate south prior to the drop in water temperatures, but it is thought that animals foraging in shallow bays and inlets become susceptible to cold stunning because the temperatures in these areas can drop quite rapidly and unexpectedly.

Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles that depend on external sources of heat to determine their body temperature. Therefore, in cold water they do not have the ability to warm themselves, and must instead migrate to warmer waters.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the most common cold stunned species. Also, loggerhead sea turtles and green sea turtles are often affected by cold stunning. These species are all found to have similar reactions to the cold water temperatures. Fortunately, the National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program has an extensive program and network that rehabs or places cold stunned victims at other facilities until they are fit to be released back into the wild. Should you stumble upon a sea turtle this time of year, call 410-576-3880 or Ocean City Animal Control immediately.

The Maryland Coastal Bays Program hosts an annual terrapin count every spring. For more information on that program or the MCBP program, contact Sandi Smith at sandis@mdcoastalbays.org or by calling 410-213-2297, ext. 106. MCBP is a non-profit consensus group dedicated to protecting the bays behind Ocean City and Assateague.

Sandi Smith is the development and marketing coordinator at Maryland Coastal Bays Program.



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