CROW Case of the Week: Sea Turtles (#18-0371 & #18-0372)

Sea turtles (super-family Chelonioidea) are prehistoric aquatic creatures that can be found in all warm and temperate waters throughout the world. These marine turtles migrate hundreds of miles between nesting and feeding grounds. There are seven species of these reptiles, but the most common found in local waters are loggerheads and green turtles. 

At CROW, two sea turtles – one loggerhead and one green – were admitted to the hospital after both were found floating in the water.

The green sea turtle was found unable to submerge at Stump Pass near Manasota Key. This condition, referred to as “bubble butt,” involved gas trapped in the patient’s coelom, or body cavity. Reports say the green turtle has an older fracture from a suspected boat strike that has healed over. 

“‘Bubble butt syndrome’ is the term used to describe abnormal floating related to a buoyancy issue in the turtle,” said Dr. Robin Bast, CROW veterinary intern.  The green sea turtle presented unable to dive because it had abnormal buoyancy, causing its hind end to float above the surface of the water. 

“In the green’s case, the most likely cause is air trapped in the coelom due to trauma from boat strike. It could be free air that was trapped when the initial wound healed over, or it could be due to trauma to the lungs.”

The loggerhead patient was found just off the Sanibel Causeway. The approximately 160-pound turtle arrived with no obvious injuries, but was thin with generalized weakness. Its shell was covered in heavy barnacles and algae. 

“The loggerhead presented floating due to being in a debilitated state, not due to a buoyancy issue. It was thin, dehydrated and anemic,” said Dr. Bast. “This could be secondary to toxin exposure, such as brevetoxicosis, or it could also be due to loggerhead anemia syndrome. 

A specific cause of loggerhead anemia syndrome has not yet been identified, but possible underlying causes include parasite burden or sprirorchids, toxins, or chronic infection. As part of its treatment, the loggerhead was given a deworming medication for any parasites, and is receiving regular iron injections in addition to its fluid therapy.” Blood samples were taken from both sea turtles for brevetoxin testing. The loggerhead turtle was started on an aggressive fluid plan to rehydrate. 

“The green sea turtle’s in-house bloodwork – complete blood count, packed cell volume and total solids – were all within normal limits. A blood sample was sent to an outside lab to test for any underlying brevetoxin exposure. This result is still pending,” said Dr. Bast. “In the loggerhead’s case, it received boluses of a colloid fluid called Hetastarch in order to treat its anemia. It also received crystalloid fluids supplemented with electrolytes the first few days in order to correct blood abnormalities including hypokalemia, low potassium levels.” After just nine days at the clinic, both patients are improving."

Both turtles have made progress since admission. The green sea turtle underwent a procedure called coelomocentesis, tapping free air from the body cavity, in an attempt to help correct the bubble butt. 

Approximately 560 (milliliters) of air was removed during the procedure. It also had temporary weights applied to its shell to help correct buoyancy issues, a common part of the treatment for bubble butt. Its back flippers are moving, but weaker than the front flippers, which may be secondary to spinal damage sustained from the boat strike,” said Dr. Bast. “A CT scan will be performed to further assess the extent of spinal damage, as well as any damage to her lungs which could be resulting in on-going air-trapping." Further testing will determine a prognosis for release. 

“The loggerhead is swimming strongly; eating squid and fish like a champ, and is no longer requiring IV fluid therapy since its electrolyte imbalances have been corrected. It is still anemic and is receiving iron injections regularly, and blood iron levels are being checked routinely to monitor progress. The turtle will not be released until the anemia improves markedly – at a minimum several weeks – but the prognosis based on clinical improvement so far is good.”


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

If you would like to make a donation to CROW, click here!