Tragedy in turtleville
Published: VetPractice December 2011 Page 27 Wildlife
Dr ERIKA SULLIVAN is concerned about declining numbers of turtles and believes that as humans are mostly to blame, it seems sensible that they should be part of the solution!
Tragedy in Turtleville
As a practicing small animal practitioner in the province of Ontario in Canada, on a typical day at work I treat companion animals, specifically cats and dogs. My inherent fondness for exotic and wildlife species has allowed me to also care for pocket pets, as well rehabilitate injured wildlife, such as squirrels, raccoons, and birds. In six years of practicing medicine, I have had very few opportunities to treat injured reptiles. My passion for wildlife conservation recently led me to enrol in a workshop for caregivers on turtles, where trauma and rehabilitation techniques were practiced. Since then, my visions of turtle trauma have shifted from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the animated cartoon, to chelonian veterinary medicine. The workshop provided a thorough introduction to basic chelonian care, as well as highlighted the importance of conserving the cold-blooded reptiles that habituate the wetlands that I call home.
From Dinosaurs to Turtles…Why Should I Care?
Turtles are one of the oldest four-legged animals still inhabiting the planet today. In fact, they first appeared in the fossil record of the Triassic period, dating back 220 million years and have since then adapted themselves to a remarkable variety of environments. But there are more to Turtles® than chocolate-coated clusters of caramel! Our ecosystem relies on them. Native turtle species are a necessary part of the ecology of wetlands, including fauna. They help control plant life by incorporating it as part of their diet. They eat invertebrate and vertebrate animals and are themselves food for fish, snakes, birds, and mammals. Sadly, globally turtles are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with more than 300 species worldwide existing and approximately half of these threatened by extinction. If concerned humans don’t intervene now, the subsequent loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems will pose significant threats to our future.
Ontario is home to eight native species of turtles, which are listed according to their level of threat for existence. Noted on the special concern list are the Snapping turtle and the Northern Map turtle. The Spiny Softshell, Stinkpot (Musk) turtle, and Blanding’s turtle are threatened, while the Wood turtle and Spotted turtle are endangered. Limited information is available on the Painted turtle, so it has not yet been listed. And while many people are familiar with the Red-Ear Slider, this is a non-native species that has been introduced via the pet trade, where often uneducated owners no longer dedicating themselves to their care in captivity, release them into local wetlands. Ontario is fortunate to have a community-based conservation program called the Ontario Turtle Tally that records where turtles survive, what threatens their population, and where the habitat that sustains them is found for their rehabilitation and survival. Such efforts, along with rehabilitation and release, local and global education, and partnering with other organizations are steadily implementing change for future turtle populations.
Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?
Turtles are very active during nesting season, which occurs in spring and early summer in Ontario. In early months turtles are in search of nesting grounds, and the sandy, gravel-covered roadsides are prime location for digging. In later months, hatchlings emerge from nesting sites and begin their search for hibernation sites. Turtles may also be seen crossing roadways looking for food, mates, or to lay their eggs around wetlands. The sight of a turtle basking on a log in the summer sun is something residents of Canada once took for granted. Populations are declining and biologists fear that most species of turtles may ultimately disappear from our province if change isn’t implemented. Road mortality from moving cars are significant threats to turtles, and most turtles hit by vehicles are nesting females. Likewise, habitat destruction of essential wetlands crucial to species survival is a reality of expanding urban populations. Globally, factors such as pollution, collection of wild species for illegal sale in the pet trade industry, and predation as food by other species are threatening turtles abroad.
Turtle Medicine 101
Comparative species medicine is fascinating. As veterinarians, we are able to learn about the anatomic and physiologic differences across species, and apply our knowledge towards their care. Turtles differ from mammals in many ways and these differences must be accounted for in their treatment. For example, turtles are ectotherms, relying on the environment for body temperature, and have slow metabolic rates. Their respiratory system allows for a breath-holding reflex, which enables them to dive under water, while switching to anaerobic respiration, and can pose significant challenges to anaesthesia while treating them in hospital. They lack a diaphragm and cannot cough effectively, and their trachea is short with complete tracheal rings, similar to birds. Their heart possesses three chambers, and their venous blood drains from the pelvic limb into the kidney to form the renal portal system. The anatomic distribution of their organs, specifically having lungs located directly under to their shell, makes them more susceptible to respiratory trauma after shell fractures from trauma. Species differences aside however, our approach to treating an injured turtle is similar to that of domestic species, whereby an initial assessment, stabilization including fluid therapy, pain management, temporary fixation of fractures (figure 10), and long-term rehabilitation measures, such as feeding-tube placement and wound management, are all possible. I was fascinated to learn that even in deceased turtles presented for care, species preservation is made possible, as eggs can be collected from gravid females and incubated with Vermiculite and water, so that the hatchlings can be later released.
How you can help!
With a few simple acts of kindness, anyone can help raise awareness to the threats affecting turtles. As a pedestrian, simply moving an uninjured turtle out of harm’s way in the direction that it was heading may save its life. Because snapping turtles can inflict harm through biting, one could move an injured snapper using a shovel, car mat, or by attempting to have it clamp down on a branch to drag it off the roadway. It is important that we never remove a turtle from its home territory. In Canada, caregivers can safely pick up an injured turtle, place it in a well-ventilated plastic container and call the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (KTTC) at (705) 741-5000 for a list of drop-off locations. KTTC admits native turtles, treats their injuries, and releases them back into their natural habitat. Each turtle saved can make a difference, as less than 1% of eggs naturally survive to adulthood, so every turtle’s ability to reproduce over decades is crucial. Other rehabilitation projects such as the Grand Eerie Turtle Outreach Program are working alongside groups such as the Adopt-A-Pond program via the Toronto Zoo to help conserve turtles through education and outreach. The program is permitted by the Ministry of Natural Resources to collect turtle eggs from predated, disturbed and/or unearthed nests in the late spring/early summer, the eggs are incubated until hatchlings emerge in late summer/early fall, hatchlings are then overwintered in local area elementary schools, and later released back into the wild at the nesting site. Globally, animal caregivers should contact local wildlife rehabilitation centers for information on similar organizations and projects in their region. We all share the planet, and since humans are mostly to blame for the decline in turtle populations, it only seems sensible that we play an active role in being part of the solution!