Unexpected Cold Storm Puts Florida Reptiles in Danger

With dropping temperatures across the Southern United States, cold-blood creatures accustomed to temperate climates can become victims to the freeze if caught unaware. These ectothermic animals, such as reptiles, rely on external sources of heat to regulate their body temperature. If temperatures drop too low and the reptile does nothing, the reptile dies. Reptiles combat cold temperatures by brumation or migrating. Recently in North Carolina, for example, alligators have been seen brumating in frozen ice ponds with only their nostrils sticking out.

Some reptiles do not have experience with winter temperatures and find themselves in danger when they do unexpectedly occur.

 A green sea turtle rests its head on a companion inside the rescue facility at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Image credit:  NASA/Amanda Diller

A green sea turtle rests its head on a companion inside the rescue facility at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Image credit: NASA/Amanda Diller

Sea turtles typically migrate south when winter begins, searching for warmer waters. However, when a sudden bomb cyclone strikes the South, the turtles who have migrated south face the plummeting temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico head on. As a result of swimming in water below 50℉, they can experience decreased heart rates, circulation, and lethargy--when untreated it can follow shock, pneumonia, and even death. This is known as cold-stunning: a hypothermic reaction that occurs when exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures.

Typically thirty or forty cold-stunned sea turtles are collected annually from Florida’s St. Joseph Bay, however this year's numbers are over one thousand. Margaret Lamont (pictured right), of the U.S. Geological Survey, identified the sea turtles as green turtles, Kemp’s ridleys, hawksbills, and loggerheads. All seven sea turtle species are on the vulnerable or endangered species list. Volunteers extract the turtles from the water or shore, then send them to Gulf Marine Park for treatment and rehabilitation.

Other animals in Florida are experiencing similar problems. During this past cold snap, frozen invasive iguanas falling from the treetops stretched social media channels. Unlike the sea turtles, iguanas are likely to return to a normal once they have been warmed in the sun if the cold snap lasts a day or two. If the weather sits around 50℉ for longer than three days, the Iguana death toll is likely to spike. All invasive reptiles in Florida (geckos, Burmese python, brown anoles, Cuban tree frogs) face the same problem as the Iguana. Native reptiles have adapted to successfully cope with cold weather and do not face a similar fate. For example, most will hide below ground.

As the winter season continues, southern cold snaps will threaten the sea turtles and invasive reptiles, challenging rescue centers to act quickly to rehabilitate and recover these organisms.