Why Are So Many Sea Turtles Getting Herpes?

July 13, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Turtle with tumors
Photo credit: Peter Bennett & Ursula Keuper-Bennett/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)

Researchers have detected an outbreak at the Great Barrier Reef.

Sea turtles in various parts of the world are being crippled by tumors. They have a turtle-specific herpesvirus that causes fibropapillomatosis — a disease characterized by tumors on the turtles’ faces, genitals, tails, shells, and internal organs.

Though the tumors are benign, they can still be life-threatening for turtles as the growths obstruct vision, prevent them from feeding, and impede their movement.

“The tumours are benign but can grow up to 30 centimetres in size and block the turtles’ vision,” Karina Jones of James Cook University in Australia tells New Scientist. “This means they can’t find food or see predators or boats.”

SEE ALSO: Why Did Scientists Release Dead Sea Turtles into Chesapeake Bay?

This disease is becoming a great concern from green sea turtles on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where Jones and her team conducted surveys and found that roughly half of the turtles in a localized hotspot in Cockle Bay have the disease, compared with less than 10 percent of turtles sampled across the rest of the bay. The findings are not yet published.

In trying to pinpoint the cause of these outbreaks, researchers have noticed that although turtles inhabiting healthy marine environments carry the virus, it typically remains dormant without the appearance of tumors. “We think there must be some external trigger that causes the tumour development,” Jones says.

Pollution may be the culprit, as she tells the Daily Mail: “We typically see the disease in areas where there is a lot of human use. Urbanisation and agriculture often affect water quality and we then see a higher incidence of the disease.”

New Scientist reports that the virus is also spreading among sea turtles off the US coast, near onshore farming areas in Hawaii and Florida, which could be the source of pollution.

The team plans to further investigate which contaminants may be responsible for the infections through chemical analysis of water samples.

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