Aquarium’s Wildlife Rescue Center doubles capacity
There’s plenty of room at the Hotel Sea Turtle. The Texas State Aquarium’s Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Center recently completed a $45,000 expansion, enabling staff to care for more of the endangered sea turtles that often wind up in trouble in Coastal Bend bays and beaches.
The facility now has 18 new tanks and pool systems for all of their sea turtle rescues, a major increase from the six tanks they used to have. The tanks and pools hold 5,500 gallons of seawater in a 2,000-square-foot facility, which can now house more than double the number of turtles.
The surgical suite has been upgraded with new technology, including a carbon dioxide laser used for invasive operations such as removing tumors.
“We’re hoping to expand into a digital X-ray machine, so we can do a full medical exam on the animals as they come in for diagnosing,” Little said.
Most of the sea turtles that come through the facility are green sea turtles. They are often found stranded and lethargic when brought to the facility, especially during the winter when icy temperatures induce cold stunning. They could also have pneumonia or have fallen victim to monofilament fishing wire entanglements in their digestive system.
Cold stunning happens when the water temperature drops below 50 degrees, which is what happened Dec. 7 when 101 cold-stunned turtles were found floating in local bays after a snowstorm. In conjunction with the Padre Island National Seashore and the Amos Rehabilitation Center in Port Aransas, 100 of those turtles were released into the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico the following week after being rehabilitated. Most of them were treated for cold stunning at the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Center.
“A lot of their functions will stop working,” Little said. “They’ll float to the surface and begin floating into shallow areas, around shorelines or grassy areas. It’s very dangerous for the turtles.”
When a turtle comes into their care, the length of the stay is about two weeks — the length of a full antibiotic treatment. Some turtles stay for months, depending on their injuries.
The tanks are divided into two separate filtration systems. One system is for patients infected with fibropapillomatosis, the other for non-infected turtles.
Fibropapillomatosis is a herpes virus prevalent in green sea turtles. The virus causes tumors to appear on flippers, near shells, over the eyes and other areas. The tumors can be especially dangerous when formed in the intestinal tract, affecting the digestive system.
“It’s seen on other species but not nearly as common,” Little said. “The tumors can get large, dangerous and uncomfortable. They show up when they’re stressed or their immune system is down.”
The facility keeps the turtles separated in case the condition is contagious. Theories for how the disease is contracted include the environment, warm weather or physical contact.
The turtles are cared for and carefully observed for signs of recovery. A tell-tale sign of when a turtle is ready for release is when it has become strong enough to swim well and eat well.
“My favorite thing is being part of the patient care, from rescuing the animal and providing any treatment it needs, watching that animal progress and get stronger to becoming a healthier animal,” Little said. “Being a part of that entire process and to be able to release them back into the wild is probably why anybody in this job does it.”
The Texas State Aquarium’s Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Center, located at 4230 Rincon Road, is asking beachgoers and residents to be on the lookout for stranded sea turtles this winter. To report a stranded sea turtle on North Padre Island or in the upper Laguna Madre area, call (361) 949-8173 ext. 226. For other areas, call (866) TURTLE-5.
For more information, visit texasstateaquarium.org/rescue.
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