Research team contributes to turtle conservation

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in rehabilitation tanks at the New England Aquarium. (Courtesy of Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

Hannah Manning and Connor Kennedy
Connector Staff

The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is the rarest species of sea turtle in the world. They have been categorized as “endangered” since 1970 under the Endangered Species Act. In recent years their population has plummeted due to hunting and pollution, and they have become classified as “critically endangered.”

Kemp’s ridleys will often become stranded in New England, of all places. The turtles are known for having one nesting spot in the world, in the Gulf of Mexico, but young ridleys will get swept up to the freezing waters off Cape Cod, Mass.

When exposed to the cold temperatures for long enough, the turtles will enter a state of hypothermic shock known as “cold stunning,” which can lead to pneumonia and possibly death.

A research squad of UMass Lowell students have teamed up with the New England Aquarium to help change that and reverse the luck of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

The group, led by doctoral candidate Erin Mangan Sullivan, consists of Mangan Sullivan and two undergraduate seniors, Alfred Lutaaya and Sonia Marcello. Their research revolves around analyzing parasites found on Kemp’s ridleys that are stranded on the beaches of Cape Cod, then rehabilitating them with the help of the New England Aquarium, and finally setting them back into the wild.

“We hope to contribute to the overall understanding of sea turtle biology with these projects. Another goal is to provide information that will be valuable to anyone treating Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that are cold-stunned or stranded,” said Mangan Sullivan.

In researching the parasites found on young Kemp’s ridleys, the researchers hope to be able to pin down a gene that could help ridleys bounce back from cold stunning.

“Using genomic tools and sequencing technologies, we are putting together the first transcriptome from this species,” said Mangan Sullivan.

A transcriptome is a complete set of RNA transcripts which are produced by the genome of an organism. Mangan Sullivan, Marcello and Lutaaya hope that the lab results can inform the rehabilitators at the Aquarium on how to shorten the process and get the ridleys back to the sea as quickly as possible.

“The more information available about their biology and physiology, the more specialized their care may become,” said Mangan Sullivan.

Treating the turtles can often be difficult for the group. The medications that are used to treat them are not made specifically for the Kemp’s ridleys and their particular problem.

“Determining how to best use a medication in cold-blooded turtles requires years of experience, and the Aquarium is continuously studying the effects that medications… have on the sea turtles under their care,” said Mangan Sullivan.

Besides the work in the biology of the issue, keeping the turtles in captivity can be immensely stressful on the turtles and is often one of the hardest aspects of rehabilitation.

“Turtles are not social animals; most of their time in the wild is spent alone in the vast space of the ocean. When many turtles are kept in a tank the size of a swimming pool with none of their natural surroundings, their stress levels will of course go up,” said Mangan Sullivan.

Hundreds of turtles get stranded on Cape Cod every year. The sheer magnitude of the issue compounded with the fact that the turtles will keep coming in can often underscore the meaningfulness of interacting with a singular turtle.

“When it’s one animal out of a population of only thousands on the entire planet, handling those turtles feels like a privilege as well as a matter of life and death,” said Mangan Sullivan.
Despite the parasites and the cold stunning, Mangan Sullivan says that the turtles face another huge obstacle in building up their population.

“Unfortunately, we are the greatest threat to these turtles. Humans develop and disturb their nesting beaches, poach eggs from nests, pollute oceans with plastics and catch sea turtles accidentally when fishing or trawling,” said Mangan Sullivan.

Mangan Sullivan has found that despite having more improvements to the rare turtles’ populations, less and less females are nesting. This may be a result of many factors, especially human disturbance.

“I can’t imagine the Atlantic without Kemp’s ridleys, and their extinction would be personally and ecologically devastating,” said Mangan Sullivan.

To find out more about conservation efforts, the website savingseaturtles.com provides an overview of the ongoing conservation process.

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