Helping Red Tide-Affected Sea Turtles

By: Nadine Slimak

An ongoing Mote study funded by the Morris Animal Foundation about the effects of red tide on sea birds and sea turtles has uncovered new information that should lead to more refined treatment for animals exposed to Florida’s red tide.

Karenia brevis, the organism that causes Florida’s red tide, produces brevetoxins that affect humans and marine species, including sea turtles, dolphins, fish, manatees and sea birds. The brevetoxins can cause acute respiratory and neurological symptoms, as well as death, when they are inhaled or ingested. Clinical signs of red tide intoxication include swimming in circles, paralysis and seizures.

All species of sea turtles in U.S. waters, and many sea bird species, are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Understanding the risks to populations is vital to their recovery.

The study, which began in 2005, is being led by researcher and veterinarian Dr. Deborah Fauquier, who will present her findings to the Morris Animal Foundation this evening (2-20-09) at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota. So far, the study has shown that the majority of the stranded sea birds and sea turtles sampled during the 2005 and 2006 red tide events tested positive for the brevetoxin, indicating that red tide intoxication plays a larger role than previously recognized in the deaths and illnesses in sea turtles and birds on Florida’s Southwest coast.

Fauquier’s study also showed that sea birds can clear the red tide toxin from their systems within 10 days of rehabilitation, but that it may take up to 50 days for sea turtles to clear the toxin and that animals can develop red tide intoxication several months after an active bloom by eating red-tide contaminated prey.

The information will help rehabilitation centers, including Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, modify their treatment plans for animals suspected of suffering from red tide intoxication.

Fauquier and researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Disney’s Animal Programs and the University of Illinois are also beginning a new Morris Animal Foundation-funded study to determine whether a drug called Cholestyramine could help treat loggerhead sea turtles and cormorants affected by red tide toxins.

In humans, the drug is used to lower cholesterol. Researchers think that the process the drug uses to lower cholesterol in humans may also help clear brevetoxins from the animals' bloodstream more quickly.

Learn more about: Mote's Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital

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Mote Marine Laboratory has been a leader in marine research since it was founded in 1955. Today, we incorporate public outreach as a key part of our mission. Mote is an independent nonprofit organization and has seven centers for marine research, the public Mote Aquarium and an Education Division specializing in public programs for all ages.

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