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SOS for Sea Turtles

by Dot Sparer and Kim Cretors



Under ideal conditions, sea turtles are among the most long-lived species. But ideal conditions are hard to find these days.

Poaching, pollution and coastal development threaten the worldwide survival of these endangered creatures. This past year alone, only about one-third of the expected number of sea turtle nests were found on Georgia’s beaches.

Plus, a viral disease — fibropapillomatosis — is causing further declines in sea turtle populations. Warts and tumors spread throughout infected animals’ bodies and obstruct internal organs or interfere with sight and mobility. Diseased turtles usually die from either secondary bacterial infections or starvation.

University of Georgia veterinary students are trying to help.

For the past two summers the five students have studied sea turtle medicine and biology in Puerto Rico — a prime habitat for the green, leatherback and hawksbill species — with the goal of improving sea turtle survival rates.

“These students are expanding our definition of veterinary medicine — and they’re doing it underwater and in another language,” said Corrie Brown, a UGA veterinarian and pathology professor.

The student research projects, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, explore a number of topics related to sea turtle health.

The first summer, students confirmed the viral disease in the Isla de Culebra region, documented Salmonella in healthy nesting leatherbacks and determined blood value parameters for healthy turtles. Last summer, they studied the relationship of mercury levels to disease infection and continued to document the disease incidence. One student developed a two-day training course on how to perform a sea turtle necropsy for Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources employees and established a system to send tissue samples to UGA to identify causes of sea turtle deaths. Another student created a Web site to track disease trends and record instances of stranded and dead animals in the region.

Led by Puerto Rican native Fernando Torres-Vélez, a veterinarian and UGA doctoral student in pathology, these projects are sponsored by the College of Veterinary Medicine’s International Activities Program in collaboration with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Caribbean Center for Marine Studies.

For more information, contact Dot Sparer at or access vpp/seaturtle/index.htm.


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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