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Threatened turtles tell climate story
Aquarium, turtle center rehab cold-shocked loggerheads
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Seven loggerhead sea turtles are back in the surf thanks to the Georgia Aquarium and its Dolphin Conservation Field Station, along with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

They were released Wednesday afternoon, along with a green sea turtle, off the beach of Jekyll Island. The animals were fitted with scientific satellite tracking devices so their migration, behavior and progress can be tracked to current locations and studied.

The organizations came to the rescue of the stranded sea turtles, a threatened species, off the coast of North Carolina in February. The stranding of these turtles, along with the stranding and beaching of thousands of other aquatic life, has unfolded to tell a global climate story, showing near-catastrophic results.

As ocean water temperatures dropped below 50 degrees this past winter, the lives of an estimated 5,000 sea turtles were threatened in the Southeast, 4,500 in Florida alone. The last comparable cold weather sea turtle stranding was in 2001, which affected only 400 turtles. Reports of sightings of motionless sea turtles poured in by the hundreds, prompting the attention of local rescue and rehabilitation centers, as well as state departments of natural resources.

"This is an unprecedented wildlife mortality, and is borderline catastrophic," said Dr. Gregory Bossart, senior vice president and chief veterinary officer of the Georgia Aquarium. "With such extreme changes in our environment, there is growing evidence of global climate change and unfortunately, wildlife is paying the price. As a steward for conservation and education, our mission is to make a difference in the aquatic community."

Turtle rehabilitation and rescue facilities all over Florida and the Carolinas rushed to aid the animals and to provide housing, but quickly reached capacity. The Georgia Aquarium and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center were contacted by overwhelmed facilities to help care for the stranded animals. Under guarded health status, the animals were taken to the aquarium’s quarantine facility in Atlanta and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island staff have been treating and monitoring the animals since February.

All of the animals came into the facilities with lesions on their shells, heads, flippers and necks. Some even had heavy pitting in their shells, while all were severely underweight and malnourished. Veterinary staff and biologists worked around the clock, tending to wound care, drawing blood, conducting x-rays, providing antibiotic therapy and holding routine exams monitoring body condition over time. Once the staff felt as though the animals’ exhibited a healthy status, the team began introducing live food into their diets to ensure their natural predatory instincts would again take over for survival once released.

"All of the turtles in our collective care have come a very long way since rescued and we are pleased with their progress thus far," said Dr. Terry Norton, director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. "These animals serve as great ambassadors for sea turtle education and conservation, helping to spread the word about the plight of the sea turtle and the marine ecosystem. We are glad to see these animals make their journey back to sea and are excited to watch their progress once released."

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