Tragedy in Turtleville... - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Tragedy in Turtleville…

Dr ERIKA SULLIVAN
is concerned about declining
numbers of turtles and believes
that as humans are mostly to
blame, it seems sensible that
they should be part of the
solution

AS a small animal practitioner in Canada, on a typical work day I treat dogs and cats. My inherent fondness for exotic and wildlife species has allowed me to also care for pocket pets and rehabilitate wildlife, such as squirrels, raccoons, and birds. In six years of practising, I have had very few opportunities to treat injured reptiles. My passion for wildlife conservation recently led me to enrol in a workshop for caregivers on turtles, where trauma and rehabilitation techniques were practised. The workshop provided a thorough introduction to basic chelonian care, as well as highlighted the importance of conserving the coldblooded reptiles that habituate the wetlands that I call home. Turtles are one of the oldest fourlegged animals inhabiting the planet today. They first appeared in the fossil record of the Triassic period dating back 220 million years, and have adapted to a remarkable variety of environments. Our ecosystem relies on them. Native turtle species are a necessary part of the ecology of wetlands, including fauna. They help control plant life by incorporating it as part of their diet. They eat invertebrate and vertebrate animals and are themselves food for fish, snakes, birds and mammals. Sadly, globally turtles are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with more than 300 species worldwide existing and almost half of these threatened by extinction. If we don’t intervene now, the subsequent loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems will pose significant threats to our future. The province of Ontario is home to eight native species of turtles, which are listed according to their level of threat for existence (Figure 1). Noted on the special concern list are the Snapping turtle and Northern Map turtle. The Spiny Soft-shell, Stinkpot (Musk) turtle, and Blanding’s turtle are threatened, while the Wood turtle and Spotted turtle are endangered. Limited information is available on Painted turtles, so they have not yet been listed. And although many people are familiar with Red-Ear Sliders, these are non-native species that have been introduced via the pet trade, and uneducated owners no longer committing themselves to their care in captivity often release them into local wetlands. Ontario is fortunate to have a community-based conservation program called the Ontario Turtle Tally that records where turtles survive, what threatens their population, and where the habitat that sustains them is found for their rehabilitation and survival. Such efforts, along with rehabilitation and release, local and global education, and partnering with other organisations are steadily implementing change for future turtle populations. Turtles are very active during nesting season, which occurs in spring and early summer in Ontario. In early months, turtles are in search of nesting grounds, and sandy, gravel-covered roadsides are prime locations for digging. In later months, hatchlings emerge from nesting sites and begin their search for hibernation sites. Turtles may also be seen crossing roadways looking for food, mates, or to lay their eggs. The sight of a turtle basking on a log is something residents of Canada once took for granted. Populations are declining and biologists fear that most species of turtles may ultimately disappear from our province if change isn’t implemented. Road mortality from moving cars poses significant threats to turtles, and most turtles hit by vehicles are nesting females (Figure 2). Likewise, habitat destruction of wetlands crucial to species survival is a reality of expanding urban populations. Global factors such as pollution, illegal collection of wild species for sale in the pet industry, and predation as food by other species are threatening turtles abroad. Comparative species medicine is fascinating. As veterinarians, we are able to learn the anatomic and physiologic differences amongst species and apply such knowledge towards their care. Turtles differ from mammals in many ways.

Ecotherms

Turtles are ectotherms, relying on their environment for body temperature, and have slow metabolic rates. Their respiratory system allows for a breath-holding reflex, which enables them to dive under water, while switching to anaerobic respiration, and poses significant challenges to anaesthesia when treating them in hospital (Figure 3). They lack a diaphragm and cannot cough effectively, and their trachea is short with complete tracheal rings, similar to birds. Their heart possesses three chambers, and their venous blood drains from the pelvic limb into the kidney to form the renal portal system. The anatomic distribution of their organs, specifically having lungs located directly under their carapace, makes them more susceptible to
respiratory trauma after shell fractures. Species differences side, however, our approach to treating an injured turtle is similar to that of others, where an initial assessment, stabilisation including fluid therapy, pain management, temporary fixation of fractures (Figure 4), and rehabilitation measures such as feeding-tube placement and wound management, are possible. Even if a deceased turtle is presented for care, species reservation is made possible, as eggs
can be collected from gravid females and incubated, so that the hatchlings can be later released. With a few simple acts of
kindness, anyone can help raise awareness to the threats affecting turtles. As a pedestrian, simply moving an uninjured turtle out of harm’s way in the direction that it was heading may save its life. To avoid risk of bite wounds from species such as snapping turtles, using a shovel, car mat, or by attempting to have it clamp down on a branch to drag it off the roadway may facilitate handling. It is important that we never remove a turtle from its home territory. Each turtle saved will make a difference, as less than 1% of eggs naturally survive to adulthood, so every turtle’s ability to reproduce is crucial.
Globally, animal caregivers should contact wildlife rehabilitation centres for information on similar organisations and projects in their region. We all share the planet, and since humans are mostly to blame for the decline in turtle populations, it only seems sensible that we play an active role in being part of the solution!

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