Friday, December 30, 2011

Unusual turtle stranding season putting aquatic care center to the test

December 30, 2011

QUINCY — Juggernaut, a 55-pound loggerhead turtle, poked his head out of the water in the pool at the New England Aquarium Animal Care Center. He stretched his neck and snapped a piece of filleted herring from a pair of forceps.

Large white scars, where skin had been peeled back to bone, covered most of his head. Similar wounds marred portions of his shell and his large front flippers. Sometime in early December his metabolism ground to a halt, shut down by cold water temperatures. He floated at the mercy of the wind until washing ashore on a bayside Orleans beach on Dec. 11.

Aquarium staff theorized that Juggernaut's wounds may have come from being bashed around on rocks or other underwater obstructions as he neared shore. Still, he was luckier than most of the turtles who lingered too long in Cape Cod Bay waters this year. Massachusetts Audubon Society figures show that 35 to 40 percent of turtles recovered this year were alive, compared with 45 to 50 percent last year. And fewer were recovered. A total of 129 turtles came in for treatment at the center last year, with only about 40 this year.

Most turtle strandings happen on the Cape and a high percentage of those turtles are Kemp's Ridley, the most endangered sea turtle in the world. Over the past 20 years, the aquarium has rehabilitated and released more than 800 sea turtles. Five of the seven sea turtle species are listed as endangered by the U.S. The five all are occasional or regular visitors to Cape waters.

Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said one theory posits that Kemp's Ridley, the smallest of the sea turtle species, may get caught in localized currents along the Outer Cape in the summer and are swept into Cape Cod Bay.

With land on virtually three sides of the bay, some may find it impossible to find their way back out, LaCasse said.

Unseasonably warm temperatures this year delayed the onset of turtle-stranding season, which usually begins after Halloween and reaches its peak at Thanksgiving. As of early December, only eight turtles had arrived at the care center, as opposed to 108 at the same time last year.

"They've found a lot of long-dead turtles. (Some) are decomposed, and that is unusual," La-Casse said.

It might seem counterintuitive, but an early cold snap that immobilizes turtles, forcing them to the surface, combined with steady winds pushing them shoreward is probably the best thing that could happen to tropical turtles who linger too long in Cape Cod Bay.

"They still have body fat, and no pathogens," LaCasse said.

With record warm weather continuing through most of the fall and into the first week of winter, bay waters remained warm enough that many turtles tried to wait out the cold, hunkered down on the bottom. They burned through their reserves of fat and became susceptible to diseases.

While many of the 34 turtles being treated in the aquarium's care center look to be in better shape than what they typically see this time of year, their blood tests revealed more internal infections.

"They are a little sicker," said aquarium biologist Kerry McNally.

LaCasse estimated the aquarium's marine animal rescue operations cost between $300,000 and $500,000 annually, paid mostly by admission fees to the main exhibition building in Boston. With more attention paid to protecting nesting sites, reducing fishing impacts and rescue of injured animals, some turtle populations are showing signs they are rebounding.

That's why the aquarium decided to invest in its new care center, which focuses mostly on turtle rehabilitation, LaCasse said.

In one of the labs of the 5,500-square-foot facility located in the old Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, McNally and senior biologist Katie Pugliares checked turtle vital signs and weight, took blood samples and cleaned wounds. The goal was to get turtles swimming and eating on their own.

These turtles are solitary creatures and generally don't play well with others.

"As they eat, they get bigger and more aggressive," McNally said. Typically, healthy turtles are moved to Southern aquariums for release.

But slower progress this year fighting infections will likely delay their release until spring or summer.

Photo: Kemp’s Ridley turtles rescued from the cold on Cape Cod beaches swim in tanks at the New England Aquarium Animal Care Center. -- Cape Cod Times/Christine Hochkeppel

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

WILDRZ: Turtle Trouble App

Turtle app will help biologist track endangered species

HAVERHILL — For the endangered Blanding's turtle, it could be the perfect Christmas gift.

Local wildlife biologist Mark Grgurovic has teamed up with a video and technology whiz from Marblehead to create an app for the iPad which, once it's complete, will offer downloaders a turtle's-eye view of their wild world.

In turn, people who buy the app will be helping fund Grguovic's work protecting the reptile and its dwindling habitat.

"The iPad app will raise awareness of endangered turtles, and some of the proceeds will go toward my project," said Grgurovic, 36, originally from North Andover but who now lives in Haverhill. "It will allow us to buy radio transmitters and expand our protection efforts."

Grgurovic, a hardwood-floor installer by trade, moonlights as a wildlife biologist while also offering consulting services to municipalities and companies mulling development in environmentally sensitive settings.

He has been studying Blanding's turtles since 1999, when he earned a master's degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst by doing a research project on his beloved reptiles.

But it was a chance meeting last summer that may propel Grgurovic and his four-legged friends to high-tech status.

He was in Georgetown on a turtle-nest protection mission near the Parker River when he was approached by a man who was interested in the comings and goings of the turtles.

It turned out to be Paul Michaels, a videographer, photographer and software developer from Marblehead who broached the idea of putting Grgurovic and his turtles on center-stage in the form of an interactive graphic novel adapted for the iPad.

"He approached me and asked if I'd be interested," Grgurovic said. "All summer, he followed me around with a video camera, and through brainstorming together, it kind of evolved into this."

'This' is a concept that now lives only in the heads of Michaels and Grgurovic, as well on a promotional Web site known as Kickstarter, which offers investors and would-be app buyers a chance to prepay for or invest in the app, which will in turn help fund its creation.

Michaels estimates that the app will cost about $100,000 to develop. So far, just $12,600 has been raised, and the funding window on Kickstarter closes Dec. 25 — Christmas Day.

If they fail to raise the $100,000, says Michaels, he will be forced to go the more conventional, and difficult, route of raising private capital from investors.

"That's Plan B," he said.

With just a few days left for people to buy the app, or to invest varying amounts, Michaels is pulling out all the stops to entice people to buy-in to the interactive app, offering prizes for investors that include making them part of the story as it is created.

Michaels said that while Kickstarter is an unusual way of raising money, it has worked with other products. He said that once the Blanding's turtle app is developed, who hopes to roll out a whole series of wildlife-related graphic novels that offer readers a chance to insert themselves into the story while also learning about endangered species around the country.

"We want kids to own it and enjoy it and be part of the story," he said.

For Grgurovic, more exposure for the beleagured Blanding's turtle is all-good.

Once abundant throughout its habitat — from the Great Lakes to New England — the number of turtles has dwindled dramatically in recent decades as more of its traditional habitat is taken away by commercial or residential development and the construction of roads.

He explained that the turtles have a very large habitat, and that they travel many miles from their hibernation sites to nesting sites in the spring. As they go, they often must cross roads newly built through their traditional habitat. Cars and trucks are the leading killers of the turtle, which have been known to live for 100 years or more.

Grgurovic and volunteers working with him have placed radio telemetry devices on about 10 females and have been tracking their travels to nesting sites around the Parker River, mostly in Georgetown. He has identified some 90 turtles in what has become one of the most well-studied and understood Blanding's populations in the country.

As more is understood, biologists are able to use that information to identify sensitive vernal ponds or other nesting areas that might otherwise be developed and destroyed, further imperiling their population.

He said last year, developers of an industrial park agreed to build replacement habitat that was going to be destroyed by the construction of roads and buildings. The project worked, Grgurovic said, as several turtles were seen in the new habitat over the summer.

He could not say where the project is located, noting that collectors have been known to swoop in and rob nests as the hatchlings come out. The turtles are then sold on the black market for up to $10,000 apiece, he said.

"It's against the law to take an endangered species, but some people like having these as exotic pets," he said, adding that Blanding's turtles never last long in captivity. "They die within a week if they are in a glass cage," he said. The reason? "They need huge areas."

WILDRZ: A Kids Graphic Novel+ Adventure App, for your iPad
A Technology project in Marblehead, MA by Paul Michaels
More information HERE!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Turtle rescued from frigid ocean temperatures on Cape Cod

From the Marine Animal Rescue Team Blog

Hybrid the Hybrid!

Yesterday, (11/29/2011), we received our eighth sea turtle of the 2011 cold-stun season. This turtle arrived at 65F from Eastham, MA. We were told the turtle was found trying to get back into the ocean and was able to be saved and brought to the Wellfleet Audubon.

More HERE.