An endangered loggerhead turtle swims in a tank at the Sea Turtle Center at Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium. The Sea Turtle Center is the only sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation center in the Midwest. (Photo by Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium)

It wasn’t just a large cold-stunning event in December 2020. It was the largest live cold-stunning event ever recorded when endangered loggerhead turtles started washing up on the shores of New England. That’s when Mike Daniel and Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium got the call.

“COVID complications had a snowball effect on the ability for people to care for these animals. So not only were more animals needing help than ever before, COVID was impacting all the different facilities up and down the East Coast,” Daniel, WOW’s general curator, said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached out to Daniel, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both had partnered with WOW, Daniel said. They asked, “Do you have the ability to help these animals?”

WOW is home to a pair of green sea turtles, so — it turns out — they did. Discussions started internally, then branched out to Bass Pro Shops and the Johnny Morris Foundation’s conservation-based grant arm, the Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Outdoors Fund. The consensus?

“‘Absolutely. What can we do to help? How can we help these animals?’ That was the birth of our turtle rehabilitation center here.”

Why care?

Wonders of Wildlife is well known as a top-flight aquarium that attracts thousands of visitors to Springfield. But it also supports conservation efforts in ways that often go unseen by the general public.

Yes. Although landlocked and some 600 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Springfield, Missouri, is home to a sea turtle rehabilitation center. In fact, it’s home to the only sea turtle rehabilitation center in the Midwest. After helping 12 turtles last year, the Sea Turtle Center is currently rehabilitating eight more loggerheads. And, to be fair, preparing the facility to accommodate these reptiles was a little more complicated than Daniel made it sound. Ben Houghton, assistant curator of fish and invertebrates, called it a “scramble.”

NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have strict requirements that must be met before a facility can rehabilitate sea turtles. A grant from the Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Outdoor Fund helped Wonders of Wildlife secure funding and permits in a matter of days. That process typically takes two years.

“Once we got that final approval, it was kind of all-hands-on-deck and the team had to remain very flexible during the 3-4 days prior to the turtles coming,” Houghton said. “We didn’t have anything set up for these turtles. That meant building barriers, getting our systems set up and ready to handle that extra bioload, figuring out what we were going to feed them, how much we were going to feed them, how much additional food we needed to have on hand, and just a lot of hands-on, physically building the enclosures in the tank and making sure we were able to, if needed, divide the turtles up or keep them together.”

Video by Shannon Cay Bowers.

A dozen loggerhead turtles arrived at Wonders of WIldlife just before Christmas. The loggerhead — named for its large head, which supports powerful jaw muscles that enable them to feed on hard-shelled prey — grow to weigh about 300 pounds as adults. The species is in danger of extinction. The current number of loggerheads worldwide is estimated at 50,000, whereas the species once numbered several million.

Because of their Christmas arrival, nine of them were named after Santa’s reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph. The other turtles were named Olive, Clarice and Chet.

“As soon as they arrived at the facility we did an initial assessment of all the animals,” said Holly Blackwood, lead aquarist. “We’re getting weights and measurements on all of them. We did X-rays on all the turtles and took bloodwork so our vet staff was able to determine exactly where they were in their recovery process. … We did a lot of initial assessment on these animals, put them into the exhibit and started slowly raising them up in temperature, on the amount of food they were being offered every day. It was just slowly building them back to where they need to be so they can be healthy and we feel confident they’re in a stage they can handle being released.”

Raising their temperature is vital for cold-stunned turtles. During “cold-stun season” water temperatures drop and turtles’ body temperatures fall below acceptable limits. When the water temperature falls below 50 degrees, sea turtles become lethargic. They can’t swim and eventually float to the surface. The wind and/or tides can push the turtles to shore. If temperatures remain low, or the turtles aren’t rescued, they can develop secondary health problems and die.

When this happens in the Greater Atlantic region, the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary rescues the turtles, who are taken to the New England Aquarium for initial medical care. After being stabilized, they’re transported to rehabilitation facilities like the one at Wonders of Wildlife.

Sea turtles are reptiles and can’t strictly regulate their body temperatures like mammals and birds. That’s why they seek out warmer water during winter months, swimming away from shore to deep water or migrating south. This presents a problem in hook-shaped Cape Cod Bay. The shallow waters are perfect for young turtles to forage in, but as the temperature drops, they become sluggish and unable to swim out of the hook and into warmer waters.

That’s what happened to the 12 turtles in the Sea Turtle Center’s initial run.

“Most of the turtle rehab you’ll find is on the East Coast and in the Gulf, for the reason is the coast is where turtles are washing up,” Daniel said. “But with the increased number of turtles that are washing up to shore, there’s just not enough hands to help, There aren’t enough facilities to make room for them. So Wonders of Wildlife being able to open our doors and offer these turtles the ability to recuperate just gives that many more success stories for the species to share the water up and down our coast.”

Why do loggerheads get cold-stunned?

Sea turtles get cold-stunned when a drop in water temperature causes their body temperature to fall below acceptable levels. Cold-stunning is most common on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Cases in Cape Cod Bay have been on the rise since 1979. Studies show the waters there are warming faster than other global waters. Experts believe that increases the likelihood more turtles will travel northward in the future. The hook shape of Cape Cod Bay makes it hard for turtles to navigate south once the water starts to cool, trapping them in a cold-stun event.

All 12 of those turtles recovered and were released back into the Atlantic in early April 2021. Specifically, the turtles were released into the waters off Panama Beach, Florida. The turtles spent a little more than three months at Wonders of Wildlife, receiving around-the-clock care from more than a dozen aquarists and animal care experts. It was a huge victory for the endangered loggerheads.

“You could say, ‘What are 12 turtles?’ But 12 turtles are important,” Kate Sampson told Wonders of Wildlife in 2021. Sampson is the sea turtle stranding and disentanglement coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. “These could be animals that go back into the population, become nesting females and have years and years of laying hundreds of eggs. These small things altogether make a big impact.”

This year’s crew of eight turtles — named after the area’s parks and waterways — has been feasting on a diet that includes blue crabs, whelk snails and more. They just recently received a clean bill of health from the WOW team. Initial conversations about when and where to release Fassnight, Finley, Frisco, Fulbright, Galloway, Mizumoto, Nathanael Greene and Sequiota are underway. There’s still plenty of hard work to be done, though.

“We do a ton of hands-on work every single day,” Blackwood said. “I’ve kind of mapped it out as far as hours and these turtles require 6-8 hours worth of work per day. And that’s not just one person. That’s from multiple people. It’s a lot of food prep, a lot of feeding and recording their diets, and observation. There’s a lot of work on cleaning their exhibit and keeping everything healthy for them as well.”

Unfortunately, that means the public isn’t able to see the turtles. Daniel said it’s possible in the future some sort of webcam or livestream will allow Springfieldians to keep an eye on the turtles as they swim, eat and get back to health.

All turtles at the Wonders of Wildlife Sea Turtle Center are cared for by a team of aquarists and veterinary professionals. (Photo by Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium)

While the turtles are the stars of the show, volunteers are the real heroes in the effort. It’s volunteers that rescue the turtles from the beaches. Turtles Fly Too, a nonprofit organization, also relies on volunteers — and their aircraft — to transport turtles across the country. WOW also has a team of volunteers that assists the staff in taking care of the turtles.

“Volunteers are an incredibly important part of Wonders of Wildlife,” Daniel said. “To be honest, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the great work we do without the passion of the volunteers coming to give their time. You’d better believe the volunteers are very special to us and a huge part of the success of, not only the turtle rehabilitation but Wonders of Wildlife and our facility as a whole. We love our volunteers and really appreciate the help they bring to us.”

Daniel and his team expect the Sea Turtle Center to remain active in the future. Cold-stunning events don’t happen every year, but their frequency is increasing and Wonders of Wildlife has proven itself capable of successfully rehabilitating loggerheads.

“We have seen an increase in the frequency and the number of animals impacted, especially in recent years,” Daniel said. “So we anticipate the need and we stand ready to help out turtles and our partners at NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife in whatever capacity we can. That’s really why we exist. We’re here to give our guests a great educational experience, but we’re also here to be those stewards for conservation. That centers around what Wonders of Wildlife is here for. We have the good fortune to be able to play a hands-on role in that capacity. We’re ready to help more turtles.”

And it’s thanks to the past two years, Blackwood said.

“There’s always going to be something that throws us for a new loop, but I think last year we had a lot more prep work and a lot more unknowns,” she said. “We had to build structures for the exhibit thinking it was what we might need. This year we had a better idea of what we were getting ourselves into and I really think it helped simplify things. We were able to look at our food ordering and things like that ahead of time. We already had contacts to find live food sources to offer them. It really helped us set ourselves up for an easier go of it this time.”

How you can help

Volunteer: Wonders of Wildlife uses adult volunteers to help with animal care, including at the Sea Turtle Center. You can apply online

Round Up: When you make a purchase at Wonders of Wildlife or Bass Pro Shops, you’ll be asked if you want to round up for conservation. That round-up money goes to the Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Outdoor Fund and helps support projects like the Sea Turtle Center.

Adopt a turtle: You can symbolically adopt a sea turtle through Wonders of Wildlife’s Adopt A Sea Turtle program. There are two adoption levels available, Ocean Hero and Ocean Advocate. This program also supports the Sea Turtle Center.

Jeff Kessinger

Jeff Kessinger covered sports in southwest Missouri for the better part of 20 years, from young athletes to the pros. The Springfield native and Missouri State University alumnus is thrilled to be doing journalism in the Queen City, helping connect the community with important information. He and wife Jamie daily try to keep a tent on the circus that is a blended family of five kids and three cats. More by Jeff Kessinger