How cold weather can impact animals in the South

Turtles and iguanas are vulnerable to unseasonably cold temperatures.

December 22, 2022, 8:25 PM

As parts of the country are bracing for a frigid forecast, residents are advised to be on the lookout for turtles, pelicans and other animals impacted by the unseasonably freezing temperatures.

Texas is forecast to see single-digit temperatures into Friday morning. With the extreme cold Thursday night and Friday, sea turtles could become cold-stunned, where they could wash up and become stranded along the shores or be unable to avoid watercraft, David Reese, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Brownsville, told ABC News.

In extreme cold, turtles experience hypothermia and can no longer move or keep their heads above water. Once they are stunned, it is critical for their survival to remove them from the water or they will drown.

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle makes its way to the ocean on June 29, 2022, at West Dennis Beach in West Dennis, Massachusetts after eight months of rehabilitation at the New England Aquariums sea turtle rehabilitation center in Quincy.
Lauren Owens Lambert/AFP via Getty Images

In February 2021, when southern Texas experienced record cold, thousands of endangered turtles had to be rescued from South Padre Island.

Ahead of the cold temperatures this week, the National Weather Service in Brownsville advised residents heading out to South Padre Island to report any stranded or cold-stunned sea turtles to an emergency hotline.

The agency also warned residents to be on the lookout for pelicans, which also struggle with chilly weather and gusty winds. They often land on coastal roadways and bridges when temperatures drop below 30 to 40 degrees and winds increase above 20 mph and "do not avoid oncoming traffic well," it said.

Fish stocks in Texas' bays and estuaries are also vulnerable to the extreme cold, with a hard freeze likely to game fish or make them easier to capture. During the February 2021 freeze, an estimated 3.8 million fish were killed on the Texas coast, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In response to the current forecast, the department has issued a temporary closure to saltwater fishing along parts of the coast, effective Saturday, to "protect resources during the upcoming freezing weather conditions," while advising anglers and coastal residents to report any freeze-related fish kills or cold-stunned fish.

"The high mortality that a freeze can cause may deplete fish stocks for years," Robin Riechers, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Coastal Fisheries Division, said in a statement Thursday. "Protection of the surviving fish during the few days when they are especially vulnerable to capture would likely shorten the time period for overall recovery of coastal species, especially spotted seatrout."

Elsewhere, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is asking visitors to the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the U.S., to be on the lookout for sea turtles and marine mammals that may be showing signs of cold-stunning.

"While cold-stunning is a natural occurrence, reporting incidents can help protect these animals and the public," Amanda Weschler, coordinator of Maryland's Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Response Program, said in a statement Wednesday.

The East Coast is forecast to get hit with a blast of cold air by Saturday morning, when dangerously cold wind chills will make it feel like it is below zero.

Farther south, Southern Florida could also see unseasonably chilly temperatures this weekend -- which could mean cold-stunned iguanas falling from trees. The phenomenon is possible when temperatures drop into the 30s and 40s, according to the National Weather Service.

Images of fallen iguanas flooded social media in January 2020, when lows hit the 30s and 40s in the Miami area. The National Weather Service in Miami even issued an advisory at the time on the possibility of falling iguanas -- and to let residents know the invasive lizards are not dead but immobile.

In this March 13, 2018 file photo Iguanas are seen at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE

This weekend, parts of southern Florida, around Lake Okeechobee, could see temperatures drop into the low to middle 30s, with winds making it feel like it's in the upper 20s to lower 30s. Elsewhere in the region, lows in the 40s are possible.

"There could be some sites that meet the iguana danger criteria," Nick Carr, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Miami, told The Palm Beach Post.

ABC News' Max Golembo contributed to this report.

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