To wrap it all up

      Today is the last day of my internship with the New England Aquarium’s Rescue and Rehabilitation Team. It has been an incredible and unforgettable experience! I loved working with the endangered sea turtles. Being able to see their recovery and release after months of rehabilitation was rewarding and motivating. It’s satisfying to know that I have – in whatever small measure – helped contribute to the perseverance of the species.  My favorite part was the field work with seals; it is fun to see the animals in their natural habitat. I also enjoyed the public education portion of the internship both through this blog and in the field. It allowed me to practice and improve upon my own understanding and articulation of this field of biology.

      Throughout this internship I was challenged both mentally and physically.  As a student I had to learn about in-house clinical procedures and parameters, learn how to maintain the tank life-support systems, and how to evaluate cases in the field. When responding in the field the terrain could sometimes be rocky or steep, and some of the animals were very heavy, requiring strength and endurance to carry them to the ambulance.  There was never a predictable or easy day, which was exciting and engaging.

     Another wonderful part of this internship has been my coworkers. There was always a professional but easy-going atmosphere.  All of the staff and volunteers have been exceedingly nice, and are very knowledgeable, eager and easy to work with.   I learned something from every person that I had the pleasure to work with.

       I really appreciate the opportunity to intern with the Rescue and Rehab team this summer. These past 12 weeks with the Rescue and Rehab department have influenced my career path. Before coming into this internship I knew I wanted to go into veterinary medicine; however, this internship has inspired me to pursue emergency and rescue veterinary medicine.  My participation in this internship could not have been possible without the support from Dickinson College’s Career Center Internship Grant. As this is an unpaid internship, the grant helped subsidize the cost of transportation between my house and the rescue facility. Thank you, Dickinson, for helping me have this experience.

The Release!

          On August 1st the New England Aquarium’s Rescue team traveled to Long Island, NY to release 7 rehabilitated Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles. Due to environmental concerns we traveled to the south side of the island so that the turtles would be released past Long Island sound (see earlier post). The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation Rescue and Rehabilitation Team, which is located on Long Island, assisted us on the beach. The trip went smoothly and seamlessly and the turtles were released onto the beach just after 2pm.  Once they were on the sand the turtles quickly wiggled and flapped forward into the surf, and swam off into the ocean. Two of the turtles, Robin and Daredevil, have sonar tags on their carapace.  These same two turtles were the first to enter the water. Gambit, Dazzler, Venom and Thor followed shortly. After a short pause on top of a patch of seaweed Zan was the last off.  A few of the turtles came up for air just past the surf, before disappearing underwater.  The whole event was surprisingly quick but was amazing to witness. 

           Watching the release was rewarding and bittersweet.  It is wonderful to know that the months of rehabilitation have resulted in the turtles successfully recovering and returning to the ocean.  All of the turtles are marked with pit (microchip) tags and most are marked with inconel (flipper) tags, so if they are spotted on other beaches we will receive an update on their location.   Until then we will continue responding to seals and preparing for the next season of cold stunning.

To see video of the release go to http://rescue.neaq.org/

 

Sonar tags are visible on two of the turtles

 

From Left to Right: Casey, Dianne, Julika, Julie, Tess, Dave, Elizabeth, Jodie and Jenna. Camera Shy: Connie, Adam, Kurt and Kerry

 

So, how does the rescue process work? How do you rehabilitate aquatic animals?

It is the goal of the New England Aquarium’s Rescue Team to help the animals survive and thrive. Each animal that is treated is assessed thoroughly and carefully. Human interactions are kept to a minimum – these are wild animals, they are not family pets and are not use to being handled or moved outside of their natural environment. Most commonly the Rescue Team responds to cold stunned sea turtle strandings through the winter, and seal strandings and entanglements during the summer. It is rare for the Team to receive calls about dolphin, porpoise or whale beaching.

All cases handled by the Rescue Team follow this general pattern:

  • The initial report:
    • A beachgoer or volunteer calls the Hotline to report a stranding, beaching, injury or entanglement. The Rescue Team collects as much information as possible about the condition and location of the animal. A staff member, trained volunteer or field team member  is dispatched to examine it on-site.
  • Evaluation:
    • The area around the animal is cleared of other people and dogs to reduce crowding or noise related stress. The animal’s behavior and physical appearance is observed from a distance. The animal is only handled if it is determined to be absolutely necessary. Most cases will be managed entirely on the beach; for example, many seals are simply overwhelmed by crowds of humans and giving the animal space is the best cure.  However, if the animal has more serious injuries such as entanglements or obvious wounds it can be transported to a rehabilitation facility (see earlier post).
  • Hospitalization:
    • All animals are given a full evaluation by a veterinarian and are cared for by staff biologists, and specially trained interns and volunteers. Just like any domestic cat and dog veterinary hospital, the rescue facility is capable of performing x-rays, minor surgical procedures, and a wide variety of laboratory tests.  The hospital can house dozens of sea turtles for months until they are ready for release.
  • Rehabilitation:
    • While the turtles are in the hospital they receive vitamins and supplements with their meals every day. In the summer the turtles are fed crabs, which provide great enrichment. The tanks are decorated with large tubes, cubbies, and mock “seaweed” to mimic their natural environment. If necessary the turtles are given physical therapy to strengthen their flippers.  All of the turtles are periodically examined and all medications and treatments are altered based on the turtles need.
  • Release:
    • This is the ultimate goal for all of the animals who are brought into the rescue facility. Before returning to the wild the turtle’s tanks will be adjusted to match the temperature of the release site. All releasable animals will have completed their course of medication and treatment and be deemed fully recovered and healthy by a veterinarian before leaving. The release site will be carefully hand-picked: it is often secluded away from humans and boat traffic and must meet all of the animal’s physiological, social and environmental needs. Occasionally some of the animals will be tagged with satellite tags so that their migratory patterns can be traced – this information can then be used to predict good alternative release sites. All of the animals will be tagged with metallic fin-tags so that if they strand and are treated in the future, the animal can easily be identified and medical records can be shared between rescue organizations.

*Rescue medicine, as in any branch of medicine, does not have a 100% success rate. All reported animals are always treated to the best of the Rescue Team’s abilities.  Any and all decisions are made with the animal’s best interest in mind

Species Identification

 When the aquarium responds to calls we have to be able to differentiate between commonly seen species of seals and sea turtles.  Below I’ve described distinguishing characteristics of some of the most commonly seen species.

Sea turtles:

Kemp’s Ridleys

Highly Endangered   Species

Loggerheads

Threatened Species

Leatherbacks

 Highly Endangered   Species

  •   The smallest known sea turtle
  •   A fully grown adult shell will be ~0.5-0.8m   long and weigh up to 50kg (~100lbs)
  •   Heart-shaped grey-brown carapace*
  •   Broad and pointed head
  •   1 claw per forelimb
  •   4 inframarginal scutes* on the bridge
  •   A fully grown adult shell will be 1-1.2m long and weigh up to 115kg (~250lbs)
  •   Oval-shaped rusty red-brown carapace*
  •   Large, broad head
  •   2 claws per forelimb
  •   3 inframarginal scutes* on the bridge
  •  The largest known sea turtle
  •   A fully grown adult shell will be 2-2.2m long and weigh approximately (1 ton to 1500lbs)
  •   Cone-shaped black carapace*
  •   Broad and rounded head
  •   No claws
  •   No scutes on the entire body: its covered in leathery skin with ridges

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Leatherback Sea Turtle                            (Picture courtesy of http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/ endangered_species/ marine_turtles/leatherback_turtle/)

  

Loggerheads and Kemp’s Ridleys both have 5 costal scutes; however, other species of sea turtles have different numbers of costal scutes. Because of this, costal scutes are often used to differentiate between species of sea turtles.

Seals:

Harbor Seal

Grey Seal

    • “Dog-like” head with a shorter snout.
    • V-shaped nostrils
    • Eyes are centered on the head
    • Sizing –
      • Adult males can grow to 6-6.5ft long and weigh up to 170kg  (~370lbs)
      • Adult females can grow up to 5.5ft long and weigh up to 130kg (~290lbs)
      • At birth pups are typically 2-2.5ft long and can weigh up to 12kg (~20lbs)
    • Coloration –
      • Pups are often born without their “lanugo” (fluffy) coat. Instead, most are born with a grey mature coat.
    • Life Span – up to 25-35 years

Harbor Seals:

Pictures taken with permission of UNE http://www.une.edu/research/ msc/marc/patients/index.cfm

  • “Horse-like” head with a long arched snout
  • W-shaped nostrils
  • Wide set eyes
  • Sizing –
    • Adult males can grow to 7.5ft long and weigh up to 300kg  (~660lbs)
    • Adult females can grow up to 6.5ft long and weigh up to 180kg (~400lbs)
    • At birth pups are typically 3ft long and can weigh up to 20kg (~40lbs)
  • Coloration –
    • Adult males tend to be dark with lighter spotting
    • Adult females tend to be lighter with dark spots
    • Pups are born with a yellowish-white “lanugo” (fluffy) coat
  • Life span – up to 35 to 40 years

Grey Seals:

Pictures property of NEAq

Cold Stunning

               The coast of New England is known for its rocky shores and notoriously cold water. For those of us who have grown up in the area, the nippy temperatures eventually become ignorable. However, sea turtles aren’t capable of regulating their body temperature like humans. As the turtles travel down the coast they move just ahead of the coldest waters. New England waters can range from mid 30’s in the winter, to the low 70’s in the peak of the summer. Most sea turtles that migrate through New England survive in water temperatures in the mid 70’s. This means that the turtles can only survive in New England waters during a limited window of time before they must migrate south.  The animals that hug the coast eventually have to swim around the scoop of Cape Cod – this environmental barrier can become problematic. Sea turtles that are at the tail-end of the migration can get trapped between the shore of the cape and the descending cold waters.  Turtles that swim into Cape Cod bay must move northeast – against their instinct to swim south – in order to get out of Cape Cod bay prior to the onset of late fall when the bay becomes much colder. Occasionally turtles will get trapped in water that is too cold for them to survive in, which causes them to become hypothermic and wash up on shore.  This condition is known as “cold stunning”.

               The New England Aquarium works in conjunction with the Wellfleet Audubon Society to find, rescue and rehabilitate these cold stunned turtles. The number of cold-stunned turtles treated by New England Aquariums Rescue Team differs every year. Last year the Aquarium rehabilitated close to 126 sea turtles. This year 31 turtles have survived through the initial hypothermia.  Once rescued, the cold stunned turtles have extremely low heart and respiration rates and must slowly and carefully be brought back to health. If the body temperature of the animals is raised too quickly it can cause large physiological deviations. Normal rehabilitation for New England cold stun turtles takes approximately 4 to 6 months.  The length depends heavily on the severity of other secondary infections or traumas.

                 The turtles that survive are given names – each year has its own naming theme. This year’s theme was superheroes. Once the turtles have been rehabilitated they will be released. 22 turtles have already been released this year. A second release date for the remaining turtles will be coming up soon.

Seals 101

It is seal pup season! Beach goers all along the coast of New England from Maine to Nantucket have been encountering these little guys. Given that most people usually do not share the beaches with these animals I’ve created a list of

Important Things to Know About Seals Pups:

  1. Seal pups will be weaned between 4-6 weeks after birth. Once they have been weaned they are fully independent and able to travel and feed on their own. However, they are not familiar with people, beaches, harbors or docks yet. For this reason, many will crawl onto unfamiliar shores to rest and be unaware that the beach is a very populate area.
  2. Seals will spend time on the beach.  They do not need to constantly remain wet.  Although seals primarily feed and travel in the water, they will happily rest and sun themselves on waterfront property, moorings and occasionally a boat. Unlike dolphins and whales, seals are able to move awkwardly across land and are able to go back in the water when they choose.
  3. Young seals are still developing muscle and growing.   It is normal for them to have to work against the current to get out to the ocean. The little guys are good swimmers but they are small. As they practice breaking through the surf and as they grow larger they will have to fight less against the breakwater.
  4. Seals do not need to eat daily.  Seals are opportunistic feeders, which means when they find fish they will eat! Well fed seals may not have an appetite for a few days after eating – not unlike humans on Thanksgiving.
  5. Look but don’t touch: Seals are protected animals.  The Marine Mammal Protection Act is a federal law which makes it illegal to change the behavior of seals in their natural habitat. Seal pups – though cute – can become extremely stressed by human interaction.  The can become overwhelmed by crowding people and pets so it’s important to keep yourself, children and dogs away from them.  Adult seals similarly can become stressed and may attempt to bite, bark or charge if they feel threatened. Signs of stress include “yawning”, waving their flippers, vocalizing, and constantly watching people on the beach.

So, if you happen to come across a seal on the beach this summer

DO

DO NOT

Leave it alone! Give it at least 150ft of space.  Quietly and discretely take pictures from a distance (do not use flash).

Call your local marine mammal organization*

Never feed the seal any type of food or beverage.Never cast fishing lures in front of the seal.

Never wrap the seal in a blanket – they will overheat!

Never pour water over it – they do not need to be constantly wet.

Do not pick up a seal – they can bite and carry diseases that can be transmitted to you and your family.

* Here are a few  marine mammal organizations within the Northeast:

  • North coast of Main (from the Canada border south to Rockland) – The College of the Atlantic, ME
  • Southern coast of Maine (from Rockland to the NH border) – Marine Mammals of Maine, ME
  • New Hampshire to Boston – The New England Aquarium, MA
  • Cape Cod, MA south to the RI border – International Fund for Animal Welfare, MA
  • Rhode Island and Connecticut – The Mystic Aquarium, CT
  • New York – The Riverhead Foundation, NY

A Week in Pictures

Image

Just an introduction

Hi! I should introduce myself; I am a pre-veterinary student and biology major at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. I have wanted to become come a veterinarian for as long as I have understood what the profession is.  I am inspired and motivated by the intelligence and emotional capacity that I see in all living creatures – fluffy and furry, scaly or slimy, finned, footed or feathered. This summer I applied to the New England Aquarium in order to explore the one of the subfields within veterinary medicine, and to expand upon prior internship experiences in land-based wildlife rehabilitation. I am unbelievably excited to spend my summer as one of the New England Aquarium’s four summer undergraduate interns! This opportunity to learn at one of the nation’s top aquariums is an honor and a privilege.

 

The Aquarium’s Rescue and Rehabilitation Team operates out of a satellite facility in Quincy, MA. The facility offers privacy and a quiet environment for its wildlife patients who are not accustomed to human interaction. The buildings five tanks are home to endangered Kemps Ridley, Loggerhead, Green and Leatherback Sea Turtles.

Currently, all of the rescue department’s patients are turtles that cold-stunned from beaches around Cape Cod. Turtle’s on the beach are found by the Wellfleet Bay Audubon Society. The living and animals are triaged and transported to the NEAq for subsequent treatments and recovery. Just this week 17 of the robust and fully recovered turtles were sent down to Virginia to return to the ocean. Eight still remain in the hospital and will hopefully be released by the end of the summer.

Although many of the patients are leaving, the hospital will not remain quiet for long –harbor seal pup season has begun!

As an intern with the Rescue and Rehabilitation it will be my job to assist in all aspects of the Rescue Team’s daily routine. This blog will follow my experiences throughout the 12 weeks from daily maintenance and food preparation, to physical therapy and enrichment activities. If the opportunity arises, I will also profile necropsies (animal autopsies), and field cases. Stay tuned for pictures, stories and updates soon! Please feel free to comment and give suggestions. I will do my best to address all requests.