TORTOLA — A British Virgin Islands doctor and her team are weighing treatment options for a green sea turtle discovered with a large tumor near its hind flippers.
The discovery was made three days after Shannon Gore and members of the Association of Reef Keepers returned to their program of tagging green sea turtles. They found one of two turtles tagged, on Sept. 29, off Peter Island, with fibropapillomastosis.
“This particular turtle was highly infected with fibropapillomatosis, a tumor-causing disease that mainly affects green sea turtles, and was not released back into the ocean due to potential transmission to other sea turtles,” Gore said. “It was transported to a local facility for assessment and quarantine.”
Gore, who in June won a United Kingdom-funded Darwin Plus grant and has tagged more than 1,500 green sea turtles since 2001, told The Daily News she isn’t sure of the exact cause of the tumor, but “things like habitat degradation and water quality” may contribute to it.
The disease can range from being minor with only a few small tumors to a turtle being severely debilitated with tumors covering the eyes and within the mouth. This, she said, will reduce the turtle’s ability to feed — with the turtle eventually dying.
Gore said she was surprised to find the turtle in that condition.
“ I noticed something on the lower half of the body and I immediately thought it was something entangled on it, but when I got closer to it, there was a tumor under one of the top flippers and I immediately recognized it as fibropapilloma,” she said.
Gore said the turtle’s recovery is hard to predict. Her team is in contact with turtle specialists and have forwarded X-rays, but X-rays are only two dimensional, she said, which makes it a little more difficult to see what’s going on.
The X-rays serve two purposes: to gauge the size of the tumor and “to devise a plan to do surgery.”
“But we’re trying to get the advice from them because if it’s anything internal, the most humane thing to do is euthanize the turtle because it will eventually die and it will be more suffering for the turtle,” Gore said.
Until Gore and her team can see how big the tumor is and remove it, it’s hard to say how long it would take to recover. Likely a period ranging from a couple of weeks to a few months.
“That’s something the vets are looking at: What’s the best course of action?” she said.
According to Gore, the first of three turtles documented with fibropapillomatosis in the territory were in 1996 at Deadman’s Bay, Peter Island, and another was sighted in the 2000s. She said no other observations of fibropapillomatosis occurred in the BVI until 2018, when small tumors were observed on a turtle that was stranded as a result of a deadly boat strike. A year later, another that also appeared to have tumors was photographed by a snorkeler in North Sound, Virgin Gorda.
“This is kind of scary because it seems after the hurricanes, it’s showing up again,” Gore said.
Gore said turtles are extremely resilient. She and her team have seen one that looked as if a shark had bitten off half of it, but was still swimming around.
Now in it’s 18th year, a specific part of the Association of Reef Keepers project is catching, tagging and releasing turtles in specific areas so that they can be monitored over the next three years. The project also collects information on turtles leaving and coming into the area and their growth rate, according to Gore.
“We have an incredible amount of data. It’s probably one of the longest running data sites in the Caribbean,” she said.