Virus Spreading in Green Sea Turtle Population

While the health of the lower Laguna Madre is generally regarded as good, there is a deadly virus rapidly spreading thru the endangered Green Sea Turtle population and coastal pollution may be the cause.
191 endangered Green Sea Turtles were rescued after being “cold stunned” by the recent norther. Most of the turtles will recover after being gradually warmed and then release. However, their future in the wild is in jeopardy as a deadly virus is causing terrible tumors to grow on many of the turtles.
Kat Lillie, the Assistant Curator at Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island is alarmed at how fast the disease, called Fibropapillomatosis is spreading among the turtles of the lower Laguna Madre.
“You can see that he has got a big tumor underneath the flipper and one at the side of his mouth. So, that can be pretty hard for him to swim and this might eventually grow and make it hard for him to eat as well.”
In just a few years the disease has erupted dramatically in the bay.
“We first saw it in 2010. We were only seeing it in about 3% of our turtles in 2011, and in 2016 we saw it in 63% of our turtles. Here in this “cold stun”, we had 191 wash up within about 72 hours, and we have this virus in about 40% of the turtles that came in.” said Lillie.
Dr. Dan Provenzano, Associate Professor, Department of Biomedicine, UTRGV – Brownsville, “This is a virus that modifies cells and cause them to proliferate extensively, so a manifestation of cancer.”
While the disease is relatively recent in its appearance in south Texas, it is distressingly widespread throughout the world’s coastal waters. The exact cause of the tumors is not known, but pollution, particularly nitrogen loading is thought to be a contributing factor.
Kat Lillie, “In these areas, in Florida and Hawaii where it has been around for a long time they are seeing a correlation with pollution, highly polluted areas and the existence of this virus. So it does make you very concerned about the health of our Laguna Madre.”
Some of the turtles will have the tumors surgically removed before being released, but it is likely they will grow back in the wild. While the virus can be deadly to turtles, it poses no immediate threat to people. However, just like the canary in the coal mine warning of foul air, these suffering Green Sea Turtles send a stark message that we need to take much better care of our fragile environment.

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