Health Care for Sea Turtles Just Got a Shot in the Flipper

By Margo Pierce | March 19, 2015 2:35 pm


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 

Charles Manire performs a CT scan on a turtle. Courtesy Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Charles Manire performs a CT scan on a turtle. Courtesy Loggerhead Marinelife Center

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.

A turtle receives TPN therapy. Courtesy Loggerhead Marinlelife Center

A turtle receives TPN therapy. Courtesy Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Life-Saving Solution

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.

The olive ridley turtle named Meghan is released to the wild. Credit: Melanie Bell

The olive ridley turtle named Meghan is released to the wild. Credit: Melanie Bell

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals
  • Guest

    2oz of fluid is 60ml – 60ml in an hour is nowhere near deadly for a human being.

  • Margo Pierce

    What makes the infusion rate risky is the mix of ingredients in the TPN.
    Sea turtles get different nutrients and it’s the level of fatty acids
    that make the turtle TPN dangerous for humans.

    • Guest

      I le­ft my desk job and now I get paid eighty five bucks per/h. How? I work online! My previous job wasn’t so pleasurable for me ,s­o I decided to take a chance with something new… 2 years after…I can say in great confidence it was a life changer for me! Let me show you what i do…—>

  • Margo Pierce

    The rate alone isn’t the issue – it’s the rate + the nutrient mix. As I stated above, it’s the level of fatty acids pumped into the body at a fast rate that turtles can handle but is dangerous for humans – out bodies can’t process the same amount of fat as quickly as sea turtles.

  • CLK

    Just visited this center about a month ago. What wonderful work being done there with a very dedicated staff! Beautiful!

  • chad edward hatten

    chad hatten
    chad hatten
    chad hatten
    chad hatten

  • Ashleigh Munton

    Sea turtles are such a luxury to see in our lifetime let alone work with. I commend these scientists on finding new ways of keeping the sea turtles alive longer to be able to help sustain a higher breeding population. This is something I aspire to do one day, help an endangered species in a way that not only impacts the individual, but also keeps that species around longer for my kids and several generations down the line. Such interesting work, I look forward to reading the paper when it is published!


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