Leeches and Maggots, OH MY
Introducing Ancient Therapy to Sea Turtles
at Gumbo Limbo’s Rehabilitation Facility
Whitney Crowder
Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Coordinator
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
Many of you are familiar with the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Facility’s application of raw honey because we believe it is one of the best natural medicines for wound care management. What you might not know is that the rehab team introduced two other natural treatments to our sea turtle patients this year!
Sea turtles often suffer from traumatic flipper injuries caused by entanglements in fishing gear, marine debris, or predator attacks. In the past, many sea turtles with these injuries would lose limbs due to extreme swelling or infection. After introducing leech therapy for these wounds, we have been able to return many more of our reptilian friends back to the ocean with their flippers intact! Leech therapy is one of the most ancient techniques in the history of medicine. In fact, leech murals were discovered inside of Egyptian tombs. Medicinal leech treatment has now become our veterinarian’s primary prescription for entanglement wounds, which unfortunately we are seeing more of every year. So how does leech therapy work? The leech attachment site mimics vein circulation by restoring blood flow to constricted wounds. Leech saliva contains healing properties including a protein that promotes blood flow, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and anesthetic properties! These qualities are what help restore the delicate flipper tissues and prevent sea turtles from needing amputations.
medicinal leeches, wounded sea turtles
Dr. Maria Chadam applies medicinal leeches to a constriction wound caused by entanglement in fishing line. Though it seems a bit creepy, they really do a great job at helping to reduce inflammation, fighting infection, and speeding the recovery of severely wounded sea turtles.
In some cases, these injuries can leave flippers only partially intact, which can lead to tissue degradation. Leeches will not contribute to therapy if the tissue is lacking circulation, so we needed a different technique. This dead tissue can be removed with another natural medicine: medicinal maggots to the rescue in sea turtle rehab! Historically, medicinal maggots were a common method of wound debridement dating back to the Aboriginal Era. Maggots secrete digestive juices liquifying dead tissues, disinfect the wound by mechanically removing bacteria, release proteins that kill bacteria, and stimulate wound healing by delivering oxygen to tissues.

Both biotherapeutic options have proved to be such a success that they both have become part of our routine flipper repair protocol prescribed by our veterinarian!
This loggerhead sea turtle suffered a traumatic injury to its front flipper. Fly larvae, a.k.a. maggots, have been applied to the wound and encased in a breathable sock. The maggots will debride the wound by consuming dead tissue, remove bacteria, and produce antibiotics to further reduce infection. They are believed to have saved many lives in pre-antibiotic times, particularly those suffering battlefield wounds. Today, they are used in humans to successfully treat non-healing wounds that do not respond to other treatments.
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