Nearly all species of sea turtles are globally endangered, plagued by habitat loss, hunting and illegal trade. About 230 rescue centers around the world do their best to treat sick turtles and return them to the wild. But their success rates are distressingly low, because sea turtles are especially difficult patients.
However, one rescue center has come up with a simple solution that could save many sea turtles’ lives: a special turtle IV system. Tests so far show that the approach drastically cuts turtle deaths, ultimately allowing more of the animals to be returned healthy to the wild.
How to Nurse a Sea Turtle
Sea turtles that end up in clinics are often desperately in need of nutrition more than anything else. The majority suffer from chronic debilitation syndrome (CDS), also called debilitated turtle syndrome. There’s no single known cause for this illness; it’s identified by the symptoms of malnutrition, starvation, fatigue and lethargy. Turtles with CDS can’t or simply don’t eat.
But emergency nourishment is tricky for marine animals. Rescue centers sometimes feed whales, seals, turtles and dolphins via a feeding tube, but those methods aren’t foolproof. If a digestive problem is afoot – say a hunk of swallowed plastic or an intestinal parasite – then the feeding tube still won’t deliver the nutrition they need to survive.
For land animals there’s another method of last resort: delivering liquid nutrients through an IV. But that approach can’t be used for marine animals. They have to stay out of the water while receiving the IV infusion, which typically takes 24 hours per treatment – longer than sea turtles can safely be on land in a weakened condition.
So, until recently, the best option for the 60 to 80 sea turtles that end up at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) in south Florida every year was to try to coax them to eat. A variety of special foods are prepared, but if the animal didn’t have the energy or inclination to eat, there were no other options. As a result, the mortality rate for rescued turtles was 60 to 70 percent at the Center.
Faced with such dire odds, the veterinary staff at the center last year decided to try an untested new approach: a superfast session of IV nutrient feeding.
Developed by Charles Manire, director of research and rehabilitation at the LMC, the procedure minimizes the amount of time turtles must stay out of water and gives them complete nutrition in fluid form.
The approach is called total parenteral nutrition. It’s similar to IV nutrition for hospital patients whose digestive systems aren’t functional or for some preterm infants. For turtles, the rescue center has developed a custom mix of amino acids, fatty acids and sugars for each species.
Treatment lasts one hour, twice a day, and gives the turtle 2 ounces of fluid – a rate that would be deadly for a human being. But it’s just what the sea turtles need. After a few treatments, most turtles regain enough strength and begin eating their usual diet of solid food again. Occasional IV treatments are then used if their blood tests reveal a need for a nutrition boost.
This procedure saved 10 turtles in 2014, including a rare olive ridley called Meghan, the first to receive this new treatment. The center says that since beginning the treatments, mortality rates of turtles with chronic debilitation syndrome have fallen to near zero.
A Brighter Future
Manire and his team now hope to leverage this new IV system to address other turtle health hazards.
“The one thing we haven’t been using it for but likely will… is different ratios of the ingredients,” he explains. “The fatty acids, or lipids, can be used to treat intoxications. When a turtle gets into a harmful algae bloom like red tide toxin, the lipids portion can bind up the toxins.”
This will give the turtle a means to remove the toxins that would otherwise remain in the body.
Manire has also worked closely with veterinarians in South America to adapt the procedure for penguin chicks facing starvation. And he believes it can also be used to save other aquatic animals. He’ll publish his team’s results later this year so that others can build on the initial success.
Veterinarians will need to adapt the procedure on “a case-by-case basis,” he says. For example, birds have a very high rate of metabolism compared to turtles. So adjustments will need to be made to the rate of treatment as well as the nutrient mix.
And for turtles, the potential impact over time could be significant, Manire says.
“We’re talking about turtles that are very close to reaching maturity and being able to contribute to the population,” he says. “In that regard, it’s very beneficial to the population as a whole. We can increase the number of mature animals that are out there that can lay eggs and produce more offspring to help build the populations back up.”
Top image by Mihai Dancaescu/ Shutterstock