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Mystery disease hits Florida loggerhead turtles

Sick loggerhead turtles are given medicine and physical therapy
Sick loggerhead turtles are given medicine and physical therapy  

March 29, 2001
Web posted at: 2:58 p.m. EST (1958 GMT)

MARATHON KEY, Florida (CNN) -- Hundreds of loggerhead turtles are turning up severely ill and virtually motionless in the waters around Florida, and experts are puzzled.

"The disease is actually paralyzing the animals and we are trying to find out right now what's causing the paralysis," said Douglas Mader, an expert in reptile medicine.

Part of the puzzle is that only loggerheads, a threatened species, seem to be hit by the illness. Other turtle species in the same waters appear unaffected.

Scientists are investigating a number of possible causes, including bacteria, a virus or some kind of toxic algae.


It could be something in the food supply, scientists said, because loggerheads have a different diet from other turtles. The green turtle that is found in the same waters eats plants while the loggerhead eats primarily shellfish, snails and crabs.

It is unclear how many turtles are affected by the illness.

"We're probably seeing just the tip of the iceberg," said Elliott Jacobson of the University of Florida. "For every one coming into captivity there are dozens that are probably dead in the water."

Hidden Harbor Turtle Hospital in Marathon Key rehabilitates injured and ill turtles, but is having no luck with the loggerheads.

It keeps the loggerheads in dry tanks instead of water-filled ones as it does other turtles, because the paralyzed turtles cannot lift their heads to breathe. They can't eat, so they're force-fed Gatorade. Workers move their fins around as physical therapy to keep them from atrophying.

The turtles also get medicine, but nothing has been effective so far.

"We've got one turtle that we've been working with now for four weeks and this one's actually shown some improvement," said Richie Moretti of the turtle hospital. "But that's one turtle out of about 35."

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