Turtles in Trouble Rescue members discovered a sub-adult green sea turtle stranded at Hervey Bay, Queensland, and brought it to safety. Credit: University of the Sunshine Coast
As the number of stranded, ill, and dead marine turtles from the recent floods has increased, researchers and wildlife rescuers from the University of the Sunshine Coast have joined forces. They have also discovered a mysterious condition that is eating away at turtle shells.
According to USC Animal Ecology Associate Professor Kathy Townsend, the aquatic reptiles are having a hard time finding food. As time passes, this situation is just going to deteriorate much worse.
In flood-impacted regions throughout the Queensland and New South Wales coast, “seagrass beds are being smothered by sediment carried out from rivers or creeks,” Dr. Townsend said. This is lowering the quality and quantity of turtles’ major source of food.
There has been an increase in strandings and poor health of sea turtles as a result of this year’s flooding, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “As the winter advances, we expect to see more starved and dead turtles.”
Researchers and rescuers are also concerned about the appearance of a new illness among turtles in Hervey Bay waters, first reported anecdotally late last year.
There has been a rise in the number of tortoises being found with areas of their shells that are soft and sponge-like and sometimes bare bone after the recent floods.
For the first time among sea turtles, “we believe it is confined to the Wide Bay region,” said Dr. Townsend.
Data gathered by rescuers responding to calls about strandings and conducting health checks on basking tortoises is vital to our researchers in determining what is occurring on, and how the tortoises are being exposed to this disease,” the statement reads.
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and University of Queensland’s School of Veterinary Science are working together to investigate if the disease is viral, bacterial, parasitic or is caused by pollution.
Ali Hammond, a co-director of Turtles in Trouble Rescue at the USC Fraser Coast campus, and members Cassy Ironside and Angela Bell spotted Timothy the turtle in Hervey Bay about one month ago and brought him to USC’s Fraser Coast campus for treatment.
Ms. Hammond said the organisation has been inundated with complaints of strandings in the Fraser Coast region since the floods in February.
They may have been sleeping and saving energy while seeking for food because of the record-breaking number of 99 calls in March, she speculated.
Increasing numbers of dead turtles have washed up on beaches so far in April.
We can’t “save” all the turtles because “we and the wildlife clinics would be overwhelmed” by the number of turtles displaying indications of malnutrition.
The most serious patients are sent to the Sunshine Coast Wildlife Hospital at Australia Zoo. Researchers at USC conduct health exams on the rest of the group.
Timothy’s rescuers first freed him after he passed a buoyancy test to see whether he had any health issues.
After a few weeks, his body was found floating, unable to dive, and extremely ill more than 50 kilometres distant. Floaters syndrome is keeping him in the ICU at the animal hospital, according to Ms. Hammond. It wasn’t just his skin that was showing signs of wear and tear.
A ‘bridge’ between rescue and scientific study
It was an interesting project that brought together citizen science and USC’s global knowledge on turtles, including the human implications of microplastics and other contaminants, according to Dr. Townsend.
In a statement, she added, “This cooperation is generating critical data on turtle health and mobility that we can utilise to acquire fresh insights into the issues confronting Australia’s sea turtles.”
The creation of Turtles in Trouble Rescue, according to Ms. Hammond, has helped bridge the gap between study and rescue.
Because of her work as a turtle rescuer, she has “the boots on the ground” and is familiar with the turtles in her area well enough to be able to track their movements and general health over time.
Rescue and rehabilitation of one turtle and release it back into the wild is a wonderful accomplishment, but understanding the cause of the turtle’s stranding and taking steps to minimise it are even more critical.
Source: University of the Sunshine Coast