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Environment & Energy

Sick Sea Turtles Recovering at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

Fourteen very sick sea turtles are recovering at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium after being stranded on the beaches of New England in what is being described as a “mass cold stunning event.”

The endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are just a few of the more than 900 that washed up on northeastern shores after becoming hypothermic as ocean waters cooled. They arrived in Pittsburgh last Sunday, from the New England Aquarium in Boston.

“The young sea turtles will be up in the Gulf Stream around Massachusetts, because that’s a great feeding ground,” said Ginger Sturgeon, director of animal health at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. “When the temperature drops, they’re supposed to migrate back down to near Mexico. These turtles didn’t make the migration in time (when) the cold snap hit.”

Because turtles are cold-blooded, the animals were unable to internally regulate their body temperature and became weak and disoriented. Sturgeon said nine of the 14 turtles came in with pneumonia. Others were found to have dangerous levels of acid in their blood, a condition called acidosis, and heart rates as low as one to two beats per minute. A normal range for this type of sea turtle is 48-50 bpm.

“Our hope is, by being able to stabilize these animals, give them the medical care they need … keeping them on those antibiotics, and then hopefully in six to nine months, (we’ll be able) to release them back into the ocean where they belong,” Sturgeon said.

The turtles range in age from 5-10 years old. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles typically live between 30 to 50 years. They are being cared for as part of the Sea Turtle Second Chance program at the Zoo, which is funded by donations and grants.

Sturgeon said it’s not uncommon for a few sea turtles to miss the migration window each year, but that this year has been different.

“It’s unusual for the sheer number of sea turtles,” Sturgeon said. “New England Aquarium has gotten in several hundred over the last week, a crazy amount of stranding. Those are all the turtles that made it to the beach. Who knows how many didn’t make it.”