Jean Beasley, director of the center, said many turtles have been affected by the sudden drop in temperatures because they cannot regulate their own temperature.
“Turtles are stressed by the sudden drop in temperature, and they often stop moving,” she said. “Their bodies essentially shut down, and their blood rushes to their core to protect their vital organs.”
This process is called cold stunning, and it is common when water temperatures drop suddenly after a period of warm weather.
But in her 30 years experience, Beasley said this is the largest cold stunning event yet.
Matthew Godfrey, a sea turtle biologist at the N.C. Sea Turtle Project, said as coastal sounds cool to about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, turtles aim to move to warmer waters near the Gulf Stream or further south.
“This year, (North Carolina) had a strong cold snap in early January with a quick drop in water temperatures that caused hypothermia in a large number of sea turtles,” he said.
Godfrey said specialists hope to direct turtles to warmer water.
“Sometimes this means transporting them offshore quickly, or they may need extra time in a rehabilitation center to recover from other injuries or wounds,” he said.
The Lohmann Lab is a branch of the UNC Biology Department that studies the behavior and sensory abilities of ocean animals, including sea turtles.
Kenneth Lohmann, a project director for the lab, said in an email the number of stranded turtles this year might have lasting impact.
“Many of the turtles that have been stranded are older individuals — either adults or turtles that will soon become adults,” he said. “These are individuals that are expected to reproduce soon and help replenish the population, so if a large number die, then the population might be jeopardized.”
He said conservation efforts will take time.
“It is difficult to predict the long-term impact of this event,” Lohmann said. “If a very large proportion of the population dies, then it could take many years for the population to recover, but hopefully that will not happen in this case.”
But Beasley said there are other threats facing North Carolina’s sea turtles.
“They cannot survive what we are doing to the world today,” she said. “It’s all the factors that we are bringing to their existence that threaten the survival of these different species of turtles.”