Monday, November 7, 2011

Giant endangered sea turtle dies of entanglement wounds

Marine Animal Rescue Team biologists examine a stranded leatherback turtle on a Cape Cod beach.


DENNIS AND QUINCY, MA—A 400-pound, endangered leatherback sea turtle died of complications from severe entanglement wounds at the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy Sunday. It had been rescued from Crow’s Pasture Beach in Dennis late Saturday afternoon. The sub-adult female was found on  Cape Cod beach minimally responsive. The sea turtle had severe, deep, rotting wounds at the base of each of its front flippers. These are the type of injuries commonly found when sea turtles get one of their large, paddle-like flippers caught around a vertical line in the water.  Such ropes are most commonly from boat mooring lines or fixed fishing gear like lobster pots. This turtle had either freed itself or was cut out of the entanglement by a person. Unfortunately, such entanglements happen every year in the waters around Cape Cod, which abuts a major seasonal migratory route for these black, soft-shelled giants.

The New England Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Team responded mid-afternoon on Saturday. They were greeted by Dennis Murley of the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay. Mass Audubon provides first responder services for  stranded sea turtles on the Cape. Aquarium rescue biologists and veterinarians found the animal still alive but barely breathing on its own. The animal was thin, not reactive to people and had terrible, large flipper wounds that had dying tissue on them and were probably at least a couple of weeks old. Aquarium staff administered emergency medications and fluids. With the aid of volunteers, the town of Dennis’s natural resources and animal control staff, and biologists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the 400-pound turtle was carried through the loose sand by 14 people to the Aquarium’s emergency vehicle.

The leatherback is examined at the Aquarium's Animal Care Center in Quincy.

It was then transported to the Aquarium’s new off-site holding and treatment facility in the Quincy Shipyard. Aquarium staff continued intensive treatment, and chief veterinarian Dr. Charles Innis and senior biologist Kerry McNally attended to the leatherback overnight.

Rescue team members give the leatherback turtle hydrotherapy.

In the early morning, the animal’s already poor vital signs deteriorated, and she passed away relatively quickly.  A necropsy later on Sunday revealed abnormality in her organs. Whether this was a result of the infections in her severe wounds was not known. Tissue samples were taken for further pathology testing.

Leatherback sea turtles are the world’s largest turtle and the largest reptile by weight. This animal at 400 pounds was not yet reproductively active. Adult leatherbacks in Massachusetts waters commonly weigh 600 to 1,000 pounds. They are seasonal visitors here arriving during the summer and early autumn to feed exclusively on sea jellies. They commonly migrate up the East Coast in late June and pass between southern Cape Cod and the Islands. The autumn migration normally begins later in September, although turtles that had traveled deep into Gulf of Maine waters do pass by southward later in the autumn.

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