Green sea turtle shells eaten away by mysterious condition following flooding near Fraser island

A mystery disease eating away at green sea turtle shells has been discovered by researchers on Queensland’s Fraser Coast.

The number of cases has been rising since the region’s flood events earlier this year.

Researchers said they were continuing to find turtles with sections of skin and scales shedding from the upper part of their shell.

University of Sunshine Coast associate professor in animal ecology Kathy Townsend said it was the first time the disease had been documented in sea turtles.

“We’ve seen a large number of turtles coming in with this disease where the shell of the turtle is really soft and spongy and, at the top of it, the scales are starting to slip off,” she said.

Dr Townsend said they had recorded 30 cases so far, with most of them occurring after the flooding.

“There was one or two with anecdotal evidence showing that they might have had it prior to the floods,” she said.

“[But] post floods we’ve definitely had a large surge in cases.”

Researching the cause

Dr Townsend said the cause of the disease could be due to a number of factors but it remained “a bit of a mystery”.

“Along with Turtles in Trouble, we have been working alongside Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service as well as the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital and Central Queensland University,” she said.

“We are also looking to see if this disease is localized and if it is just being found in the Fraser Coast region.”

University researchers and wildlife rescuers are joining forces in response to the issue.(Supplied: University of the Sunshine Coast)

Dr Townsend said if it was viral, or bacterial, there was a possibility that animals could spread it to one another.

“If it is caused by a pollutant, then no, it would just depend on whether that pollutant is present or absent,” she said.

Turtles are dying

Turtles in Trouble coordinator Ali Hammond said the disease had led to the deaths of some turtles.

“They’ve gone downhill to the point that they have had to be euthanised because they’ve gotten so sick from it.

“In rehab now they’ve actually had some success with treating a few of the turtles and some of them are actually quite stable and appear to be recovering, which is really exciting.”

Dr Townsend has called on other rescue groups to be aware of the disease.

“Superficially it looks like a boat has skimmed it and knocked the scales off the top of the shell,” she said.

“Unless you’re actually looking for the way this disease presents, you may miss it.”


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