Herpes virus threatens endangered turtles

By AAP and AG staff 22 June 2011
Reading Time: < 1 Print this page
A herpes virus that causes tumors is killing endangered green turtles in Queensland.

A HERPES VIRUS IS killing endangered sea turtles in north Queensland. About half of green turtles at Edgecombe Bay at Bowen, south of Townsville, have life-threatening or debilitating tumours, compared to 10 per cent elsewhere, scientists say.

Some turtles recover but in the worst cases the tumours affect the turtles’ organs and vision, making it difficult for them to feed and escape predators.

Researchers from Townsville’s James Cook University (JCU) are studying the unusually high infection rate. Virologist Dr Ellen Ariel says every second juvenile turtle at the bay has tumours triggered by the herpes virus.

“The healthy ones are really fast but the ones with the tumours are very lethargic,” Ellen says. “What we want to find out is why there’s a very high prevalence of this disease in this one small area. We don’t know if there are environmental influences involved.”

More research needed

She says it’s unclear if these sick turtles migrate to this bay or whether they arrive healthy and became sick.

“There are records of turtles recovering from the tumours but there are also cases of them dying,” she says. “After the cyclone (Cyclone Yasi, in February) many of them (with tumours) died because they’re too weak to survive.”

The phenomenon was first noticed about 10 years ago. JCU researchers,
the local indigenous population and Queensland government researchers
have been investigating the virus since.

Ellen says the research will include gathering statistics on mortality rates in diseased turtles. WWF is helping fund the research, which involves catching, testing and tagging the turtles in a kind of “turtle rodeo” manner.