August 24, 2010

Regional sea turtle survey recaptures first sea turtle ever rehabilitated by South Carolina Aquarium

The long-term value of rehabilitating sea turtles was substantiated on July 5, 2010 when the first loggerhead rehabilitated at the South Carolina Aquarium was recaptured nearly 10 years after it was released from what has developed into a full-fledged Sea Turtle Hospital. This loggerhead, dubbed "Stinky" by the Aquarium's animal care staff, was recently recaptured a few miles off central Georgia by the R/V Georgia Bulldog during a regional turtle trawl survey managed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Between release and recapture, Stinky's weight increased from 103 to 176 pounds and his length grew by five inches, which is a normal rate of growth for a juvenile loggerhead of this size.

The story of how this loggerhead came to the Aquarium on Aug. 22, 2000 was detailed in the August-November 2000 issue of Loggerheadlines. Briefly, "he" was found floating in Port Royal Sound, Beaufort County and picked up by DNR Law Enforcement. The turtle had a heavy barnacle load but no external wounds. After being examined by Sea Islands Vet Clinic on James Island, S.C., DNR transported the turtle to the South Carolina Aquarium for rehabilitation. Upon arrival at the Aquarium, Stinky was determined to be positively buoyant and classified as a "floater." Initial supportive care (administered with guidance from the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine) included antibiotic and vitamin injections, fluid therapy, and radiographs which confirmed internal gas pockets in the animal's body cavity. After a short period, Stinky began to eat squid, a few crabs and a lot of mackerel. Following two months of treatment his overall health had improved, but his floating disorder persisted; thus, it became apparent that additional procedures would be needed to ultimately treat the floating condition.

On Oct. 11, 2000, a team was assembled from the Aquarium and DNR, led by Dr. David Owens, a renowned endocrinologist with the College of Charleston, to perform a laparoscopy on the ill loggerhead. In this procedure, a small incision is made and an optic endoscope is inserted into the turtle's body cavity. Using this scope to visualize the interior of the body cavity, Dr. Owens was able to guide antibiotic-laced sterile fluids into the body cavity to treat the animal's internal infection and displace the air that was causing the turtle to float. The scope also enabled Dr. Owens to visualize gonads indicating the turtle was male, information not attainable from an external examination until a sea turtle reaches adulthood. A second laparoscopy was performed on Nov. 15, 2000 and revealed great improvement of the internal condition and soon after, the loggerhead was cleared for release.

On Jan. 11, 2001, Stinky was transported to the warm waters off Florida by DNR and released at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Melbourne, Florida. For the next nine and a half years, his whereabouts and status remained unknown.

This story is a remarkable example of the success of rehabilitation, for which little data is available. While satellite-telemetry (which has been used by the South Carolina Aquarium) provides a means to gauge the initial success of rehabilitation and release, documenting long-term survivorship requires recapturing turtles which is not common. Stinky is only the second of 51 sea turtles to be recaptured following successful rehabilitation and release by the Aquarium, both of which were recaptured in the regional in-water trawl survey. Furthermore, because this turtle is a male that would not come ashore unless he stranded again, the odds were even more stacked against ever receiving a report on his whereabouts after he was released. Therefore, when Julia Byrd, DNR Biologist and Chief Scientist for the July 5-9 cruise, reported that he "looked fat and healthy and was very energetic when he was brought onboard," Sea Turtle Hospital staff were elated.

When Stinky stranded in 2000, his tail was very short (five and a half inches) and it did not extend beyond his shell, indicating that he was not a mature male. During the 10 years at large, it is very exciting to note that his tail grew eight inches to reach a length of over 13 inches. It appears that this turtle is close to or has reached maturity which would allow him to contribute reproductively. But, the significance of capturing a matured sea turtle is even more profound than adding one more adult to the population. As Dr. Owens explains, "Recapturing this turtle is an amazing and unprecedented opportunity to study a sea turtle in this part of the world that is transitioning through puberty, a critical life stage for the recovery of sea turtles that has never been properly studied." Thus, DNR is hopeful that the steroid hormone samples collected for Dr. Owens and other collaborators from this and other similar-sized turtles may help refine the estimates of the amount of time that must elapse before loggerheads fully mature.

In addition to highlighting the strong partnership between the Aquarium and SCDNR that now benefits many species statewide, this sea turtle's story also beautifully illustrates why patience is so crucial among those working to conserve and recover our state reptile, the loggerhead sea turtle. In the three decades that have passed since loggerheads were added to the Endangered Species List in 1978, nesting in the southeast, including South Carolina, has declined while in-water catch rates have increased. Because 90 percent of in-water collected loggerheads are healthy juveniles that are predominantly females (determined from testosterone levels) originating from our region, these individuals, if they survive to maturity, may lead to an increase in the number of adult nesting females in the future.

So while we all wait with bated breath to see what the future holds for loggerheads along our coast, rest assured that DNR is doing its part to ensure accurate data is collected and available for making informed management decisions that affect the fate of loggerheads, and that the South Carolina Aquarium is making sure that every individual is given a fighting chance at survival. Together, DNR and the South Carolina Aquarium are working to educate the public on how each and every person can take part in protecting and conserving sea turtles for future generations.

Help us help sea turtles in South Carolina: Lighting and habitat disturbance are detrimental to sea turtle nesting and hatchling emergence; thus, we recommend the following steps to minimize any negative impact on sea turtles on the beach:

More information on the DNR Marine Turtle Conservation Program.

More information on the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

More information on the DNR Sea Turtle Trawl Survey.

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