Mystery shell-eating disease and floods twin disasters for sea turtles

There’s been an increase in the number of sick, stranded, starving and deceased sea turtles washing up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.

Also placing the population under pressure is a recently discovered mystery disease that “eats” turtle shells.

Floods and a mystery ‘shell-eating’ disease are having a devastating impact on Sunshine Coast sea turtles. (Supplied)

The disease was first noticed in turtles around Hervey Bay waters last year.

But since the floods more animals have been found with sections of skin and scales shedding from their carapaces.

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This makes parts of their shells soft and sponge-like and sometimes exposes bare bone.

USC Associate Professor of Animal Ecology Kathy Townsend said researchers are investigating what causes the disease.

An x-ray showed a substantial blockage in the colon of the green sea turtle.
An x-ray of a green sea turtle found washed up in northern NSW following the floods shows substantial pieces of plastic within its digestive tract. (Sea World / WWF)

It’s not yet known whether it is viral, bacterial, parasitic or caused by pollutants.

“This is the first time this has been documented in sea turtles, and so far, we believe it is contained to the Wide Bay region,” Dr Townsend said.

“The data being collected by our rescuers, as they respond to callouts about strandings and conduct health checks on basking turtles, is essential to helping our researchers determine what is going on, and how the turtles are being exposed to this disease.”

Findings are being shared with the with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and researchers are working closely with the University of Queensland’s School of Veterinary Science.

Turtle in the Great Barrier Reef
Six species of threatened sea turtles grace Queensland waters. (iStock)

In March there were a record 99 callouts to save struggling animals and April “has been busy” as more sea turtles are washing up dead on beaches.

Dr Townsend said the marine reptiles are also struggling to find food.

“Sediment washed out from rivers and creeks during the extreme rain events is smothering seagrass beds in flood-impacted areas along the Queensland and NSW coast, reducing the quality and quantity of the turtles’ primary food source,” Dr Townsend said.

“Sea turtles usually spend summer fattening up before the annual winter dieback of seagrass, but the floods have compromised this, resulting in the poor health of turtles and more strandings.

“We anticipate seeing more starving and deceased turtles as winter progresses.”

There are six species of sea turtles that roam Queensland waters.

These are; the green turtle, loggerhead turtle, Olive Ridley turtle, flatback turtle, hawksbill turtle and the leatherback turtle.

All species are threatened; listed as either vulnerable or endangered by Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science.

Reference-www.9news.com.au

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