Winter Freeze Affects Sea Turtles, Manatees, Whooping Cranes, and Invasives

Florida manatee. USFWS
The winter freeze that has hit Gulf Coast states is taking a toll on more than crops. On Thursday, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation biologists rescued a 7-foot-long female manatee from 53-degree waters in a St. Petersburg canal. They took the juvenile to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. The cold water may drive the herbivorous mammals to warmer waters, says Chuck Underwood, a spokesperson for FWC in Jacksonville, Florida. “Manatees may experience early crowding at springs and power plant outflow areas. It's reasonable to expect greater numbers at the congregation sites (natural and artificial) and there may well be another spike in cold-stress related deaths and rescues.”

In Panama City, Florida, biologists raced to save stranded sea turtles that are washing up due to freezing temps. The turtles will be rehabbed in Gulf World in Panama City Beach.

While some animals have been suffering, for the most part, wildlife in the region are expected to survive the weather. “Native wildlife and plants are generally adapted to face a cold winter snap,” saysTom MacKenzie, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Region.

Scientists point out that the bitter cold might actually be beneficial when it comes to exotic invasive species, like island apple snails (eggs, left), which go dormant when it freezes. “Severe cold may help reduce or kill invasive plants, fish, or wildlife that should not be here in the first place,” says MacKenzie.

The drop in mercury has been a boon for birders in South Carolina eager to see whooping cranes. “These cold conditions are usually what drive the whooping cranes to our state,” says Jennifer Koches of FWS’s South Carolina office. “Both of our ‘resident’ wintering pairs are now safely back.”

Wondering what’s causing the winter freeze? The New York Times’ Kenneth Chang provides a good explanation:

What’s going on? Global cooling? Nope. A mass of high pressure is sitting over Greenland like a rock in a river, deflecting the cold air of the jet stream farther to the south than usual.

What does seem clear is that these oscillations have nothing to do with global warming, or, for that matter, global cooling. For one, they’re not new. And this winter’s cold has not been global. Santa, by North Pole standards, has been experiencing a balmy winter. “Pretty much all of the Arctic is above normal,” said Dr. Walter Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. In some areas, the temperatures are as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

And it is certainly not the coldest air that has descended on the United States. In a great blizzard that swept across the East Coast in 1899, even parts of Florida dropped to below zero.

That makes thirty-nine degree Orlando sound almost balmy (current temp as of 10am today).

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