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Saving Endangered Sea Turtles

Saving Endangered Sea Turtles

A hospital for rehab, research and release of one of Earth’s oldest living animals.

Saving Endangered Sea Turtles

Thursday, July 9, 2015 - 12:30

Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer

(Inside Science TV) --  Buckwheat, Mikey, Beaker, Barney, Alfalfa, Newman, Goober and Barnacle Bill are just a few of the sea turtles currently being treated at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida, a landmark animal hospital dedicated to ensuring that sea turtles -- some of the oldest animal species on Earth -- survive and thrive in the face of extinction.

Armed with three ambulances and a dedicated team of biologists, zoologists, veterinarians and staff, The Turtle Hospital treats up to 200 turtles a year, and since 1986, it has released 1,500 back into the wild.

The need for facilities like the Turtle Hospital is huge. Sea turtles have been around a long, long time: By some estimates, their ancestors date back over 100 million years. Unfortunately, modern species of sea turtles haven't had it easy. All six sea turtle species in U.S. waters are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and worldwide, sea turtle populations have fallen since last generation. The dangers facing the turtles are numerous, according to Bette Zirkelbach, a biologist at the hospital.

"The biggest threat is human impact," she said, "and that varies from pollution, to trash in our water, fishing line entanglement, [and] boat strikes."

And tackling sea turtles' complex healthcare needs requires a surprisingly sophisticated battery of tools. "We do blood transfusions, we give the turtles IV nutrition, we do physical therapy -- things you might not think of with a sea turtle," said Zirkelbach.

Commonly, Turtle Hospital veterinarians have to address a disturbing trend: sea turtles' eating of plastic debris, which has increased worldwide since 1985. Turtles mistake the bits of plastic for food -- and in the case of "Barnacle Bill," a 170-pound loggerhead sea turtle treated by the Turtle Hospital, the plastic builds up in their intestines, starving them unless it's removed. When Barnacle Bill was found floating, veterinarians used a bronchoscope to look inside his lungs and were able to clear plastic from his intestine.  During the turtle's exam, the researchers also discovered that one of Barnacle Bill's lungs is smaller than the other one. Barnacle Bill will remain at the hospital until a permanent home at an aquarium or zoo can be found. Until then, veterinarians will add weights to Barnacle Bill's back to help him stay underwater. 

The Hospital also treats turtles suffering from fibropapillomatosis, a viral disease ravaging sea turtle populations worldwide. It's thought that small leeches stuck to the turtles pass along a virus similar to the human herpes virus. If an infection takes hold, the virus causes tumors to grow all over the turtles' bodies -- large enough to affect their sight, swimming, and snacking. The problem hits close to home: "This is a virus that affects over 50 percent of the green sea turtle population," said Zirkelbach, including ones in Florida.

To treat cases of fibropapillomatosis in turtles like "Osborne," a recently captured green sea turtle, veterinarians with the Turtle Hospital use tools like laser scalpels to remove fibropapilloma tumors. This is especially important for Osborne, who suffered from tumors around his eyes. Doctors are hopeful that the procedure will save Osborne's eyesight.

"We’re doing a lot of critical care," said Zirkelbach. "A lot of state of the art medical care, we do blood transfusions, we give the turtles IV nutrition, we do physical therapy … things you might not think of with a sea turtle."

Despite the challenges, the successes of Turtle Hospital keep staff members like Zirkelbach motivated.

"To take an animal that would not have otherwise survived, to help mitigate for the human impact that's out there, fix a turtle up and put him back out into the wild -- there's nothing like it," she said.

Get Inside The Science:

The Turtle Hospital - Marathon, Florida

Bette Zirkelbach, The Turtle Hospital 

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California.  She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.

I’ve dedicated my time to reporting and producing stories focused on medical, science and technology. I created a nationally award winning series dedicated to promoting women and their great accomplishments.  Now I’ve taken that expertise outside the traditional TV news format and broadened the viewership to people around the world.