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Rare Turtles Are Flown Cross-Country In Desperate Effort To Cure Their Pneumonia

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Rare Kemp's ridley sea turtles were recently flown from Boston, Mass., to Galveston, Texas, after a cold snap off the New England coast forced the animals into a lethargic state. Of nearly 1,000 turtles who washed ashore on Cape Cod, half were rescued. The drop in temperature stunned so many turtles that the New England Aquarium and other local turtle rehabilitation centers were overrun.

But for 50 of those turtles, their path to recovery lead them to the Texas coast, nearly 1,900 miles away, where they were flown last week. A private charter flew the turtles stacked in sturdy banana boxes with wet towels. The turtles must have made an impression on the flight over: The pilots were "quite excited" to help unload the injured animals, Lyndesy Howell, a NOAA research biologist in Galveston, told The Dodo. Biologists greeted the critters at the sea turtle lab in Galveston, and have been slowly warming the turtles out of hypothermia. "They're not in great shape," said Ben Higgins, program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab, to the AP.

After the turtles arrived in Galveston, the caretakers began treating the reptiles for pneumonia and skin lesions with antibiotics. From now until next spring, biologists will feed the animals a protein-packed diet of squid, shrimp, scallops and crabs. Once the turtles have regained their strength, NOAA will release the animals into the nearby Gulf of Mexico, which is home to the majority of the Kemp's ridley sea turtle population.

Range of Kemp's ridleys. (Credit: NOAA)

This year's cold spell is not a complete anomaly. Turtles swimming southbound off the coast of New England can find themselves trapped by Cape Cod, which juts out into the Atlantic like the curl of a bodybuilder's arm. When water hits about 50 degrees, the cold can stun turtles, who are swept ashore, Howell said. But around 40 degrees, the turtles experience organ failure.

Howell - who spoke to The Dodo while driving to a stretch of Texas beach where she goes each week to look for injured turtles - will oversee the care of these animals along with a veterinarian from the Houston Zoo. For the duration of their recovery, each turtle is kept in his or her own tank at the National Marine Fisheries Service's Galveston Sea Turtle Facility.

Sea turtles are by nature solitary animals - unless it's breeding season, when hordes of females come ashore to nest. Today's groups, however, are much smaller than the numbers of nesting turtles seen in the 1940s - as many as 42,000 in one day. Kemp's ridley sea turtles have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since it passed in 1973. In 1991, only about 200 turtles nested. The turtles have slowly been recovering from the brink of extinction, in large part thanks to to a ban on egg collection in the ‘60s. According to a rough estimate, between 7,000 to 9,000 females nested in 2012.

Having friends like Howell is a boon, too. "We help over 100 turtles a year," she said, "and with these we'll bump up to more."