News ID: 136417
Published: 0115 GMT February 08, 2016

Sea turtles with tumors fill Florida hospital

Sea turtles with tumors fill Florida hospital

The young patient writhes on the operating table, kicking its flippers. A team of medical attendants turns it over, revealing an underbelly cluttered with tumors, some as big as golf balls.

This endangered green sea turtle, about two years old and too young for the staff to know yet whether it is male or female, is infected with fibropapillomatosis, a potentially deadly disease caused by a type of herpes virus, Phys.org reported.

Experts still don't understand quite how the virus spreads, or what causes it, though some research has pointed to agricultural runoff, pollution and global warming.

As the population of green sea turtles rebounds in and around the Florida Keys, cases of fibropapillomatosis have exploded too, filling the corridors of the United States' oldest rescue and rehab facility, known simply as the Turtle Hospital.

"When I first started here 20 years ago, I would do six to eight of these a month," said veterinarian Doug Mader, as he injected a local anesthetic, then cut off the cauliflower-like growths with a carbon dioxide laser.

"Now we are doing six to eight a week," he said as the air fills with the smell of saltwater and burning flesh.

Each turtle can require several operations to remove all the tumors, which cover their necks, underbellies, and eyes, blinding them and making it hard for them to find food.

Green sea turtles were first listed as endangered species in 1976, but are now nesting in record numbers — 28,000 nests counted last year in Florida, up from fewer than 500 decades ago.

Their status may be changed from endangered to merely threatened as early as March.

While conservationists celebrate these successes, they also lament that the animals' environment is increasingly polluted and hot, as the oceans absorb most of the warmth from human-driven climate change.

The evidence lays before Mader every day in the clinic.

"I have this horrible feeling that as the oceans warm, we are going to see more and more disease," he said.

Nestled in a bright green motel complex connected by pebble strewn pathways, the Turtle Hospital opened its doors in 1986, taking in 12 patients in its inaugural year.

Last year, it treated 173 sea turtles — 119 of them with fibropapillomatosis — according to manager Bette Zirkelbach.

These days, the hospital has never been busier. Its staff of 18 and fleet of orange-and-white ambulances can be dispatched around the clock to fetch injured turtles.

Fibropapillomatosis was first documented in sea turtles in the 1930s, and is pervasive in warm waters around the world.

Zirkelbach said about half the green sea turtles in the area are infected, and the cases are getting worse.

“In 2012, it was rare to have a turtle coming in with tumors on both eyes. By fall of 2013 almost every turtle that came in with this virus had both eyes covered with tumors.

After spending a year in the hospital's pools, tumor-free, the turtles may be released. But if the lesions get into the kidneys and lungs, there is no way to save them.

These days, just one in five green sea turtles with fibropapillomatosis will make it back out to the wild, said Zirkelbach. "They are just too sick."

   
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