Tuesday, March 1, 2016

600 Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles Treated in January

The beginning of a new year can inspire change and encourage a fresh start. That is how January
began this year at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island with the onset of much anticipated exhibit renovations. However, this project’s launch was quickly followed by another major event: sick sea turtles arriving by the hundreds.

A sudden drop in water temperatures caused these reptiles to become cold-stunned, rendering them unable to swim or fend for themselves. On January 5, they began washing up along our soundside shores and on the frigid oceanside beaches. Truckloads were brought to our Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center by dedicated volunteers with the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles and biologists from the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Staff and volunteers from all over the Aquarium assisted with this mass-stranding event, many staying late into the night to give these animals care.

Two days later, a total of 349 turtles were on-site. Treatment required them to remain dry, allowing their body temperatures to increase gradually. Areas around the Aquarium were transitioned into makeshift hospitals. Bathrooms and utility areas were full of bins, most housing an individual turtle. There was an outpouring of support from the community, with towels, storage bins, and other supplies being donated. Monetary contributions came in from all over North Carolina and surrounding states.

By January’s end, nearly 2,000 sea turtles had washed up on North Carolina’s coast, with roughly 600 being treated here on Roanoke Island. Facilities across the state, including our sister aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher, cared for turtles affected by this event. After being cleared by veterinarians, many were transported south for release off Florida or were taken directly to the Gulf Stream’s warm waters by the Coast Guard. Other ailments have kept a few in the STAR Center for further care until deemed healthy enough to survive in the wild.

This amazing influx of sea turtles had never occurred here at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Our staff and volunteers facilitated everything remarkably, and are currently reviewing and streamlining procedures that will benefit any cold stun event, and will especially identify the tools needed if an event of this magnitude were to ever occur in the future.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How a 3-D Printer Healed a Turtle

Release day for Augie
Monday morning is a time most people do not look forward to. The first Monday of this month, however, was a different story. We got to spend it on the beach in Nags Head, releasing three green sea turtles back into the Atlantic. Two turtles had recovered from cold-stunning, and the third, named Augie, came to us in July 2013 with fractures to both front flippers. Augie's road to recovery at the Aquarium lasted two years, and involved collaboration between multiple organizations and, surprisingly, a 3-D printer. 

Augie's splint 

One Tech-y Turtle

Augie's right front flipper was in the worst shape due to an open fracture, and it needed help healing. Our veterinarians decided to have a plastic splint developed, which would reduce motion and encourage the flipper to mend. This is where the 3-D printer comes into play. A CT scan of the flipper was used by Austin Isaacs and Kathryn McCullough, students in the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering at NC State, to create a custom splint, produced on a 3-D printer. McCullough designed the model of Augie's flipper, which was printed with two materials, rigid for bones and flexible for soft tissues. Isaacs created the splint around the example, printed from rigid nylon in a honeycomb pattern to reduce weight.

Once secured to Augie's flipper, the splint remained in place for 40 days. After this time, the bones were stable enough to continue healing on their own. Augie was then housed in an exhibit tank, larger than ones in our rehab center, in order for the flipper to become conditioned. Augie was able to eat well, and swim, dive, and navigate around the exhibit as s/he became stronger.

Time to Go

Earlier this summer, another CT scan revealed the fractures were fusing together nicely. The flippers did not appear perfect, but the bones were growing appropriately with the size of the turtle. Before release, Augie was moved behind the scenes, away from the public, in order to become desensitized to human exposure. When feeding Augie, staff kept out of the turtle's view s/he would no longer associate humans to receiving food.

Augie was ready to go. On release day, the large crowd cheered as a volunteer from the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles took Augie down the beach towards the ocean. The green sea turtle swam out into the Atlantic, another success story from our STAR Center. Many collaborating organizations made this possible, and our hope is that this first-of-its-kind project will help in further developing similar treatments for other injured animals. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Raft and Sandy Go Home

Two lines of onlookers faced an empty path in the sand leading to the ocean. A large black bin was carried from a National Park Service pickup truck and placed next to a small container. Everyone patiently waited to see the contents: two rehabilitated sea turtles ready for release into the wild.

In early June, we were able to release Raft, a loggerhead, and Sandy, a Kemp's ridley, from the beach in Buxton, North Carolina after they were treated here at the Aquarium. STAR Center staff and volunteers, with help from the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles, cared for these animals for many months. Rehabilitating sea turtles is challenging, with the potential for new problems to arise quickly. Even with the obstacles, Raft and Sandy each have their own success story.

Raft came to the Aquarium in November 2014, covered in barnacles, oysters, seagrass, leeches and leech eggs. This loggerhead was thin and anemic, making it very tired and weak. Raft also had buoyancy issues, causing the rear carapace (or shell) to be elevated above its head when submerged. A 1-pound dive weight was attached to help Raft swim normally, and the floating did not return after its removal. De-worming medication was administered to Raft, and afterwards s/he began eating well and gaining weight. This loggerhead was cleared for release after a final physical exam showed the turtle was in excellent body condition.
Sandy was found cold-stunned in early January on Hatteras Island. Upon arrival to the STAR Center, this turtle would not eat. S/he began to accept food after a few weeks, but had unfortunately lost some weight. A shoulder wound and neck lesion were treated by vets and staff, and eventually Sandy began eating well and gained weight. Once the neck lesion decreased in size and his/her overall condition was good, vets cleared Sandy for release.

Our vets implanted these turtles with PIT tags, which can be detected with a special scanner. If they are brought to another rehabilitation facility, these tags will reveal that Raft and Sandy were previously treated here at the Aquarium. Our hope is that they will remain healthy and not require assistance from humans again. However, if either one does run into trouble along the shores of the Outer Banks, we are ready to bring them back to the STAR Center for a second time.
Sandy waiting for release.
Raft was ready to go home!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Saving Fin

Head wound. Neck injury. Partially healed carapace. Broken flipper.

Any one of these would be a serious problem for a sea turtle, and a STAR Center patient is unlucky enough to have all of these ailments, and more. Fin, a Kemp’s ridley, came to us last November, very lethargic, thin, uninterested in food, and experiencing a lot of pain. Fin was in bad shape and our team knew a lot of dedicated work would be needed to save this turtle.

Carapace injury
Where to Start?

Fin's most noticeable injury is the carapace (or shell) fracture. Presumed to be a boat strike injury, it was already well healed and likely months old. A puncture wound behind the right eye, which led into the neck where a large swollen mass had formed, was much more concerning. Small bone fragments and pieces of dead tissue were removed and the injury was thoroughly cleaned, a process which would be repeated many times per week.

Cleaning the puncture wound
Showing no interest in food, Fin was force fed until late December when the turtle finally ate shrimp on its own. In February, a CT scan donated by Sentara Kitty Hawk confirmed a bone in the left front flipper was broken in three places. Necrotic material was removed from a small opening in the flipper and a foul odor revealed infection. It was obvious more invasive measures were needed to help Fin

Scalpel Please

Removal of neck mass
A procedure to remove the mass in Fin's neck was performed in February. After anesthetizing the turtle and making an incision, vets removed dead debris and tissue. To promote healing, the cleared wound was filled with raw honey and covered with gauze held in place with a few sutures. Fin's recovery from this operation was challenging, but the turtle eventually gained strength and became more active than before.

In April, an orthopedic specialist was called in to perform surgery on the flipper. Much more involved, this procedure took 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete. A crowd of visitors peered into the treatment room as vets removed dead tissue and a small fragment of necrotic bone before deeply cleaning the wound. Fin's flipper was stabilized with a network of pins with hopes that the bone will heal.

Pins inserted around Fin's broken humerus

Many sea turtles come to the STAR Center and regain their strength and health quickly. Fin is not one of those turtles, having been here for nearly seven months. S/he will be in the care of our dedicated staff and volunteers for much longer. Saving Fin is important because all sea turtles are endangered, and when one is rehabilitated and released back into the wild, we help save the species from extinction.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Plastic...Not Fantastic

Imagine walking into a restaurant, hungry for a tasty meal. You get a sandwich and take that first bite. But something is wrong. It looks like a sandwich, but it doesn’t taste like a sandwich. It’s plastic, but you’ve realized it too late. 

Humans would not usually confuse plastic for food, but many animals, including sea turtles, make this mistake everyday.  Litter in the ocean, much of which is washed there from waterways on land, appears to be nutritious food for these reptiles. They love jellyfish and submerged sea grass, and floating plastic bags and balloons, discarded by humans, look just like their favorite snacks. Unfortunately, this misinterpretation can be deadly. 

Otter's Story

Eating plastic debris can cause sea turtles to become very sick. Many perish from starvation because these materials do not break down, blocking their digestion. Our STAR Center is no stranger to the issue. Otter, a green sea turtle currently in our care, was brought here in December, weak from being cold-stunned and malnourished. S/he had a limited interest in food and even lost a very small amount of weight. Otter would not eat, so our staff eventually began force feeding the turtle. His/her weight stabilized, but lesions to the head and around the nose added to Otter's poor condition.

This turtle was not well, and one culprit of its illness soon surfaced. A large piece of latex was found in Otter's feces in late December. Two more bits of trash, one latex and one plastic food label, appeared in March. Vets were hopeful that his/her appetite and feeding behavior would improve after passing these small bits of trash.  Otter still seemed uninterested in food for a while, but we are happy to say that this turtle began eating on its own at the beginning of April, a little less than four months since its arrival to the STAR Center.

Reduce the Plastic Problem

Otter is lucky to have been brought to the Aquarium, where s/he receives life-saving treatment. Many animals who encounter problems with plastics are not as fortunate. An ever-growing threat to our oceans, plastics are affecting the largest organisms to the smallest. It may seem overwhelming, but the actions of one individual can make an impact. Here are a few things you can do:
  1. Say no to plastic bags. Bring your own reusable bag out shopping, or simply refuse a bag when checking out.
  2. Limit your consumption of single-use plastics, including water and soda bottles, straws, and coffee cups.
  3. Recycle plastics that you do use.
For more ways to reduce your 'plastic footprint' visit the Surfrider Foundation's Rise Above Plastics page. Otter's story is an example of why we should all make small changes in our use of plastics everyday.