Gruesome Virus attacks Sea Turtles in Florida

by Pushan Hinduja

Climate change and pollution around the world are causing marine mammals to see an increase in illness and disease. More specifically, Lorraine Chow, discusses a rising number of sea turtles affected by fibropapillomatosis (FP), a disease similar to herpes, in the waters around Florida. Chow believes that the possible culprits for the observed rise in affected turtles are increased pollution and the warming of the waters. Between 2012 and 2014, the Turtle Hospital rescue and rehab facility based in the Florida-Keys has seen an increase in the number of turtles admitted, from 56 to almost 100. FP is a virus that primarily causes tumors to grow on the exterior of a turtle’s body. In some cases, however, FP can cause tumors so large that they prevent a turtle from being able to swim, see, or avoid predators. The hospital tries its best to find turtles and cut off the tumor growths with a carbon dioxide laser, however the process and sheer volume they are dealing with doesn’t make it easy. Although the survival rate after the surgery is almost 90 percent, some surgeries can take almost “half a year,” given the huge number of tumors some turtles can have; additionally, because many turtles are already sick, only one in five actually gets to return to the wild after the surgical procedure.

Chow cites a study from Duke University, the University of Hawaii, and NOAA that discovered a relationship between pollution and FP. The study explained that nitrogen located in much of the runoff that makes it to the ocean, accumulates in the algae that the turtles eat, causing them to contract the disease. In addition to the pollution effect, increasing surface water temperatures could accelerate the chemical processes, causing the water to become even more toxic as time passes.

The author believes that this is a huge cause for concern. Almost 50 percent of all turtles in the waters around Florida have this disease, and as water temperatures increase, the number is going to become even greater. The biggest challenge for the hospital currently, is that “it never ends,” and the increase in pollution and temperatures are only going to exacerbate the situation, putting the species of turtles around the coastal waters of Florida at a huge risk. Ultimately, this problem is not unique to turtles, worsening effects of climate change are putting species all around the world at risk and causing them to see new diseases and threats to survival.

Chow, L. 2016. Gruesome Tumors on Sea Turtles Linked to Climate Change and Pollution. EcoWatch. https://ecowatch.com/2016/02/09/sea-turtles-tumors/

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