Long Live the Turtles

Sea turtles are considered a symbol of longevity, and MSU CVM is doing its part to help ensure the turtles themselves are around for a long time! This is especially true for a group of juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that were part of a mass “cold stunning” event in the Northeast last December.

Through a partnership with the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, MSU CVM veterinarians and veterinary students are playing a key role in the care and rehabilitation of these amazing marine animals, which are not only the smallest, but the most endangered of all species of sea turtles.

According to MSU CVM Assistant Clinical Professor of Pathobiology and Population Medicine Dr. Stephen Reichley, who is a certified aquatic veterinarian, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are ectotherms; therefore, their body temperature is regulated by the temperature of their surroundings.

“As water temperatures start to decline in the Northeast, sea turtles begin to migrate south to warmer waters. A number of turtles that do not migrate quickly enough—mainly juveniles—will be exposed to these cold waters causing them to become hypothermic-like, which is commonly referred to as ‘cold-stunned,’” he said. “This is the case for the turtles currently being cared for by our faculty at IMMS.”

This type of stunning event occurs every year; however, this year included a near-record number of turtles, and coupled with COVID-19 safety guidelines for volunteers, they were sent to many facilities across the country. A non-profit organization that coordinates and facilitates the use of general aviation to transport endangered species, critical response teams, and educates the community on conservation of marine life, Turtles Fly Too, Inc., is routinely involved with this situation and flew the turtles to Mississippi, where they were met by the MSU CVM and IMMS response team. MSU CVM sent two residents and five students to assist the team with the initial intake process.

“The turtles were triaged at the facilities in the Northeast and provided continued care on the plane. Upon arrival at IMMS, they were admitted to the turtle hospital where a team of experts, including MSU CVM Clinical Instructor Dr. Christa Barrett, a certified aquatic veterinarian stationed at IMMS, performed an assessment of each turtle, including radiographs, an ultrasound, and blood work,” said Dr. Reichley. “Drs. Hannah Urig and Alexis Thompson, who are completing their residencies with the College’s population medicine service, also participated, as did five CVM DVM students, giving them the opportunity to get hands-on experience dealing with a large-scale rescue effort.”

According to Dr. Barrett, cold-stunned turtles often have skin and shell lesions, poor body condition, dehydration, bacterial or fungal pneumonia, gastrointestinal issues and other medical problems. Their prognosis and duration of rehabilitation is variable and often depends on development of secondary conditions. For example, three of the 20 sea turtles received succumbed to severe pneumonia; however, the other 17 continue to improve.

“Cold-stunned turtles typically have reduced heart rates and respiration rates and are not eating. They often also suffer with secondary infections such as pneumonia,” she said. “The turtles we received have required treatments such as fluid therapy, antibiotics, topical therapies, and individually planned diets. They are being kept in individual tubs of varying water levels depending on their swimming abilities. The water is heated, and the tubs are in a temperature-controlled environment.”

Board-certified veterinary specialists from the College’s main campus are assisting with the extensive care and treatment of the turtles as needed. For instance, MSU CVM Associate Clinical Professor Dr. Caroline Betbeze, who is a veterinary ophthalmologist, was called on to perform eye exams to check for eye abnormalities caused when the turtles fail to blink or shut their eyes normally following cold stunning. Dr. Allison Lee, assistant professor and veterinary radiologist, and Dr. John Thomason, associate professor, veterinary internist, and Lauran and Dean Wingo Faculty Fellow, are also assisting with the care and rehabilitation of these turtles.

MSU CVM second-year DVM student Amanda Rowe was one of the students who assisted with the turtles’ initial intake. “The recent invitation to participate in the rescue and treatment of cold stunned Kemp’s ridley sea turtles was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Rowe said. “Evaluating and assisting in treatments for these endangered animals exemplified how the education I’m receiving here at State can be adapted to any species and situation. I am very grateful to the College and the team at IMMS for affording me this incredible opportunity.”

Several more DVM students have since volunteered to help provide ongoing care for the turtles. They assist with husbandry activities and providing medical treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

“The student volunteers have been an important part of the caregiving team for the turtles, and they are learning a great deal in the process,” Dr. Barrett said. “For instance, some of the turtles require fluid administration, and the students have been very helpful with that. They also get to watch—and frequently, actively participate in—different assessments and procedures being conducted on the turtles.”

Ashley Beyer, a first-year DVM student, helped with the turtles over the winter break. She had the opportunity to spend two days caring for them and said it was a wonderful learning opportunity that she thoroughly enjoyed.

“This whole experience was super cool,” Beyer said. “We kept the turtles’ pools clean, helped administer medications to them, helped prepare their food—which involved hacking away at a huge shrimp ice block—and helped feed them. It was an amazing opportunity!”

According to Dr. Barrett, the turtles are progressing well. “There is a range of care needed, with some requiring more intensive care than others, but overall, they’re progressing as expected. However, there is still a long road ahead for medical care and rehabilitation before they can be released,” she said.

MSU CVM Assistant Clinical Professor Dr. Debra Moore, who serves as attending veterinarian at IMMS, said a hatchling sea turtle has only a one in 10,000 chance of becoming an adult, so it’s critically important to save as many of the turtles as possible.“The rehabilitation—and ultimately the release—of these 17 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles is vital for species conservation,” Dr. Moore said. “And the experience these students are gaining is invaluable. For some, it might just lead to a career path in marine animal medicine, but for all, it will provide the opportunity to share with the public—for example future clients—the plight of endangered species. Education of the public is critically important if we are to make a difference for our planet.”

According to MSU CVM Professor and Director of MSU’s Global Center for Aquatic Food Security Dr. Mark Lawrence, who is a veterinary microbiologist specializing in aquatic animal health, the ultimate goal is to rehabilitate these turtles back to health with the intent to release them.

“MSU CVM has a team of highly dedicated veterinarians committed to providing optimal clinical care for these sea turtles, and the opportunity for our veterinary students to get hands-on experience in their rehabilitation is truly unique,” Dr. Lawrence said. “I feel honored to work with Drs. Moore and Barrett, who have tremendous knowledge and skills to provide medical care for these animals. When the turtles are medically cleared, they will be released into the Mississippi Sound, where with a little luck, they’ll grow to adulthood and reproduce, helping ensure the future of this critically endangered species.”