Beating the Odds: National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation Provides Advanced Surgical Technologies to Fight Fibropapillomas
Larry Wood, Ph.D.
Among the many challenges sea turtles face today, arguably the most mysterious and pervasive is a globally-distributed disease known as fibropapillomatosis (FP). Currently believed to be viral in origin, this disease (most commonly found in young green turtles) can be easily recognized by tumors growing around the eyes, mouth, and flippers that often appear as large, rather gruesome cauliflower-shaped masses. If left untreated, these tumors can continue to enlarge and/or internalize, eventually overwhelming the infected individual by restricting mobility, impairing vision, and/or severely weakening the animal’s immune system.
First documented in the early 1900’s, FP’s increased prevalence over the last few decades has had biologists and conservationists concerned for the future of already-depleted green turtle populations. In all parts of the world where FP is found, there is a strong correlation between disease frequency and the turtles’ proximities to human activity. Studies have shown that green turtles entering and foraging within lagoon systems become considerably more prone to tumor growth (where in some cases over 60% of the individuals can be afflicted) than those that remain in near-
CO2 lasers are amomg the most effective tools available to remove fibropapilloma tumors. Housed at the Palm Beach Zoo, this machine is used by Gumbo Limbo’s sea turtle rehabilitation program
“Coleen” is among dozens of juvenile green turtles treated each year for FP. If no new tumors form, otherwise healthy individuals are released after 3 months of recovery
nearshore open-oceanic waters. This evidence suggests a link between FP susceptibility and degraded, poorer-quality habitats where nutrient and pollutant levels are high.
specifically equipped to treat FP-afflicted turtles. Without drugs to treat FP internally, wildlife veterinarians have turned to direct tumor removal and supportive post-surgical care. Though not a cure, surgery has proven effective in slowing and even reversing the disease’s progression, which then allows the turtles’ immune system to rebuild and fight the
pathogen(s) naturally. Nowadays, surgical lasers are among the most effective tools available for tumor removal. Often used in combination with radio-cautery, lasers can effectively remove and destroy embedded tumor cells that are often missed by scalpel use, reduce bleeding, and shorten post-surgical recovery time. In response to the urgent need for this equipment, the National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation provided funding for the purchase of a CO2 laser for Gumbo Limbo’s fibropapilloma surgery. Since 2010, Gumbo Limbo has treated an average of 60 FP turtles per year with this device, making a significant contribution to the statewide effort to battle this disease.
Though a number of advances have been made in understanding the etiology and distribution of the disease, no effective immunization nor drug treatment has been developed for turtles already afflicted. Because little remains known about how the disease is transmitted between turtles, rehabilitation facilities understandably don’t want to risk exposing other non-infected patients by contaminating their seawater filtration systems. In response to a growing need for specialized treatment centers, Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex in Boca Raton recently became one of five facilities in Florida
FP causes tumors to grow on the soft tissues of sea turtles, usually around the base of the flippers, neck, eyes, and mouth. If left untreated, afflicted individuals can be overcome by the disease.
Dr. Maria Chadam donates her time to skillfully remove fibropapillomas from a green sea turtle using a combination of radio-caudery and laser surgery. These turtles have an excellent chance of survival thanks to a partnership between the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center and the Palm Beach Zoo.
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