The loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) is the most common sea turtle in Florida. In 1987, there were nearly 96,912 nests reported in the state by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Compare that to the 53,102 Green sea turtle nests reported in the state last year, and you can see the nearly 2-to-1 ratio between the most common and second most common.
While the numbers appear impressive, these marine reptiles are still considered an endangered species and protected by state law. Loggerhead sea turtles are so named due to their large blockheads to go with their strong jaw lines. They have a heart-shaped upper shell and thick front flippers.
At CROW, an adult male loggerhead sea turtle was admitted after it was reported to be struggling and rolling over in the water just offshore of Sanibel. The turtle was rescued by Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) staff. During the intake exam, the patient weighed in at about 239 pounds. Based on its clinical signs, CROW medical staff stated the turtle was suspected to have been affected by brevetoxicosis, also known as red tide poisoning.
“Since this past October, we have admitted 274 patients (all species, not just turtles) for suspected brevetoxicosis; 229 of those have been admitted since January 1 of this year,” said Dr. Robin Bast, CROW veterinary intern. “Typically, brevetoxicosis cases make up approximately 10 percent of our caseload annually.”
Dr. Bast explained that larger sea life like a sea turtle is not necessarily less susceptible to red tide poisoning than a small fish. “We see a wide variety of clinical presentations depending on the species affected,” she said. “For example, if they have another concurrent medical condition, that makes them more susceptible or are unable to clear the toxin. Severity of clinical signs has not been directly correlated with patient weight or amount of toxin found in the blood. The toxin remains in the environment and food chain long after the algal bloom itself resolves.”
The prehistoric patient also had some other minor health problems that were addressed. “Epibiota, or external barnacles and algae buildup, were found on the turtle’s shell. This indicates the turtle may have been debilitated for some time,” said Dr. Bast. “It is easily removed within 48 hours of admission by placing the patient in fresh water.”
The turtle was given ceftazidime to prevent complications with possible aspiration due to rolling over in the water. “Ceftazidime is an injectable antibiotic. In this turtle’s case, we suspected aspiration and potential pneumonia due to its history of being upside down in the surf,” said Dr. Bast. “Additionally, patients with brevetoxicosis get ileus, or slowing of their gastrointestinal tract, and antibiotics are indicated to treat this as well.”
After two weeks at CROW, the loggerhead sea turtle appears to be returning to good health. “The loggerhead’s bloodwork has improved; he is swimming well in the tank, and has started to eat on his own,” added Dr. Bast. “Bloodwork will be reassessed this week to determine a plan for potential release.”
CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.