Image: Sea turtle
Jamie Mullins  /  AP
Treme is wintering in the Flower Garden Banks exhibit at Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. The cold-stunned green sea turtle is recovering from the effects of cold water temperatures after being rescued in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
updated 3/1/2010 11:09:53 AM ET 2010-03-01T16:09:53

Treme and Margeaux, a pair of endangered green sea turtles, are spending an unplanned winter vacation in New Orleans after being rescued in December.

The turtles now at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas were victims of "cold-stunning," when unexpected chilly weather dropped water temperatures in the two channels below 60 degrees, said Michele Kelley, a marine biologist with the aquarium and state coordinator of the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

"It snapped too cold too quick, and in too shallow water for them to protect themselves," Kelley said. Both had typical symptoms of the turtle version of hypothermia — they were so lethargic they looked like they were dead.

A fisherman spotted Treme, the smaller of the pair, upside down and unmoving among rocks in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on Dec. 8 and called the Audubon Zoo for advice. Veterinarians at the aquarium at first were concerned that the underweight female turtle's lungs were filled with fluid.

Margeaux, named for the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, was found near that waterway's southern end by Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries scientists collecting fish samples.

Green and rust-colored algae covered a layer of mud on her shell and skin. Aquarium officials met the Wildlife & Fisheries boat to take the turtle to safety.

Kelley said the two turtles, discovered miles away from each other, probably were making their way to warmer waters in either Florida or Texas, typical stops for the migratory creatures.

Mandy Tumlin  /  AP
Margeaux was covered with algae and mud when she was rescued in December.
But being juveniles, Treme and Margeaux were forced to keep to shallow water near wetlands where they could hide from sharks and other predators, and shallow water cools quickly.

"Turtles already get into trouble when the water is around 60 degrees, and it becomes critical, life-threatening, when it drops to 50 degrees," Kelley said. At 60 degrees, their metabolism slows and they don't want to eat. By 50, they're not eating at all, barely moving, and they've relocated all their blood to their vital organs under their shells.

"They look completely dead," she said.

When the two were brought in, aquarium staffers assessed their health, drawing blood to count white blood cells and check calcium levels, taking x-rays of their lungs, and checking their weight. Then they were put in a warm freshwater bath.

Both turtles were alert enough to keep their heads above water, or they would have been placed on warm, wet towels.

"Treme gave us a bit of a scare," Kelley said. "As she started to warm up, she started to have tremors. While we thought that was part of the warming process, we'd never had that reaction before."

Both turtles were put on antibiotics and given vitamins, fluids and anti-parasite and antifungal medicines. As they began to recover, the fluids were replaced with a gruel made of Pedialyte, ground-up fish and vitamins, delivered two or three times a day through a tube down their throats.

Soon, their temperatures returned to a more normal 78 degrees and they were able to begin eating more normal turtle foodstuffs.

Treme has been moved from the aquarium's backstage labs to the Flower Garden coral reef exhibit on the aquarium's first floor, where she can be seen swimming and snacking.

The algae and mud have been cleaned from Margeaux's shell and skin, but she was not yet ready to move into an exhibit.

"She's a picky eater," Kelley said. "We think it's a personality issue, so while we have her in isolation, we're going through every food we have to see what she likes, so when we get her into an exhibit, she gets what she wants.

"She was cold-stunned for quite some time before she was found," Kelley said.

Both turtles will be returned to the wild when the Gulf water warms up. Their release will be timed to assure they don't end up in nets during the spring shrimp seasons.

The green sea turtle, whose scientific name is Chelonia mydas, is an endangered species protected under federal law. Hatchlings are only 2 inches long, but adults can grow to 3 feet long and weigh 350 pounds. They eat a mix of sea grasses and algae, which is believed to produce the greenish-colored fat for which they're named.

The turtles are found in tropical and subtropical waters. In the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, they're found in inshore and nearshore waters from Texas to Massachusetts, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

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