Rare turtles being treated at aquarium

December 31, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Three of some of the world's rarest animals -- a trio of battered Kemp's ridley sea turtles that breed on beaches in the Gulf of Mexico -- arrived in critical condition at the National Aquarium in Baltimore last night to be nursed back to health.

The turtles, which had beached themselves on Cape Cod after traveling into the frigid waters of the Northeast, were found in a comalike condition because of the weather. A dozen of the turtles were recovered by the New England Aquarium and three of them were transferred to Baltimore, arriving about 5 p.m. yesterday.

All three of the young, foot-wide turtles -- relatively plentiful in the 1940s but near extinction by the early 1970s -- also suffer from fractured bones, a dislocated shoulder, pneumonia, osteomyelitis and open lesions.

Scientists surmise that young turtles are sometimes swept north out of their normal habitat by the Gulf Stream and become stunned by the unfamiliarity of cold water.

"Kemp's ridley are one of the seven sea turtle species in the world and the most endangered," said David Schofield, of the aquarium's marine animal rescue program. "Their natural habitat for nesting are on beaches in the Gulf of Mexico, most of which are destroyed. Severe overharvesting and poaching reduced [the population] in staggering numbers."

Schofield said that in the 1940s, Kemp's ridley's female nesting population was about 40,000. Today, he said, it is less than 3,000.

If the local aquarium's rehabilitation of the turtles lasts for more than several months, they will be released in warm waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay this spring, Schofield said. If their recovery is more rapid, they will be flown to Florida for release.

Pub Date: 12/31/98

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