CROW Case of the Week: Gopher Tortoise (#18-0633)

From a longevity standpoint, the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is regarded as a prehistoric creature since it has been roaming coastal dunes, upland dunes, upland forests and sandhills of the southern United States region for thousands of years. These reptiles can live up to and beyond 60 years of age but, as a species, their population is declining and their status is considered threatened in Florida and Georgia. 

Gopher tortoises are learned survivors, though. Instead of searching for drinking water, they quench their thirsts by eating many water-storing plants and other greenery. They are so named by their ability to dig large, deep burrows with their shovel-like front legs. These dug burrows are home to other animals. In fact, it is reported that some 350 different species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and even birds are guests to these burrows. This good neighbor policy allows the gopher tortoise to be termed a keystone species, since it plays a pivotal role in their native community. 

At CROW, an adult gopher tortoise was admitted to the hospital from Lehigh Acres. The tortoise was hit by a car and sustained a severe shell fracture to its carapace over the area of its left lung, which reportedly opened the coelomic membrane. CROW officials stated x-rays showed an opacity in the left lung field, meaning the lung had been affected by the injury and causing a life-threatening situation. 

“The injury to the shell ripped open the underlying membrane and exposed the lung, which can be a life threatening situation. It can cause respirator y compromise, pneumonia, or collapse of the lung,” said Dr. Malka Spektor, CROW veterinary intern. 

The patient’s coelomic membrane was sutured closed, and the site was bandaged with telfa, gauze, elasticon and honey. Yes... honey! A close call with death may have been avoided.

“It appears that the tortoise still has use of the lung, and any minor damage has mostly healed. We have not seen any respiratory distress, bleeding from the nose, or other signs of a damaged lung,” said Dr. Spektor. “Honey can be a foundation for a wound bed to facilitate healthy regrowth of the tissue. The hole in the membrane was stitched closed first, but the honey was used to help the healing process. Honey also decreases the chance of infection because it has antimicrobial properties.”

The patient was provided with pain medications, antibiotics to fight and prevent infection as well as iron and B12 to compensate for bleeding. “Iron is a component of red blood cells that helps carry oxygen around the body. When the body is anemic, it also becomes iron deficient,” said Dr. Spektor. “Even if we cannot perform a transfusion, we can still help by supplementing iron. The B12 is used to make hemoglobin, a molecule that carries oxygen in the red blood cell.” 

The patient has been at the clinic since March 20 and appears to be healing nicely. “The wound has developed a layer of eschar, which is the tissue that begins to repair the shell defect,” added Dr. Spektor. “The patient is eating well, active, and will hopefully be released in the next week or two.” 


CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.

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