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Cold-Stunning of Florida Sea Turtles

Florida's shallow bays and estuaries provide important habitats for threatened and endangered sea turtles. Adults and juveniles of three species-loggerhead, green and Kemp's ridley-can be found throughout the year in these salty bodies of water. Green sea turtles in particular find their primary food, seagrass and seaweed, here while loggerheads and Kemp's ridleys search for crabs, mollusks, and other crustaceans.

What causes cold-stunning of sea turtles?

Unlike marine mammals such as dolphins or manatees, sea turtles cannot keep themselves warm-their body temperature varies with the surrounding water. As water temperatures drop in coastal lagoons and bays, many sea turtles will move through inlets and passes to warmer water offshore or to the south. A very rapid drop in the air and water temperature can trap sea turtles in the shallower coastal waters. They can become inactive, settling close to the bottom or in deeper water within the estuary.

By staying close to or within the sandy or muddy bottom, some sea turtles may be able to withstand short cold spells. However, at very low temperatures (less than 50o Fahrenheit [10o C]) these cold-blooded animals may become lethargic or "stunned." Smaller sea turtles are the first to feel the effects of the cold, but if the temperature stays low for too long, larger sea turtles will also be affected. A cold-stunned turtle is not able to move very well, if at all. They may be pushed by strong winds or currents onto the shore or into marsh areas, or just float at the water's surface.

What should I do if I see a cold-stunned sea turtle?

If you see a cold-stunned or stranded sea turtle, please contact the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922).

Recent cold-stunning events

In January 2010, an unusually long spell of cold weather in Florida led to a statewide sea turtle cold-stunning event. For more information on this event, please see the article January 2010 Statewide Sea Turtle Cold-Stunning Event.