Tuesday, June 10, 2014

She Survived - A Loggerhead's Story

Over the past few years of my education, I've been able to learn more and more about sea turtles in a variety of contexts – rehabilitation, organizing public education, nesting beaches, and now scientific research. It’s so true that the more you learn about something the more you realize how much you don’t know – but instead of being something that is frustrating, it has been a source of increasing fascination and wonder.
Science can be seen as something cold, unemotional and clinical – and that perspective is sometimes deserved. However, in my experience it’s been a method to tell a story. From the clinical side of things – my research is about physiology – hormones and proteins. But to me, it’s much more than that. 

Brie ultrasounding an adult, female loggerhead.

How an adult female sea turtle is able to produce all the calcium, fats and proteins needed to make so many eggs is somewhat mystifying. The fact that she has to break down much of her own fat stores as well as extracting calcium from her own bones to give to her offspring is beautiful in my eyes. Female sea turtles do not provide parental care for their offspring – they haul out on the beach, make a nest and lay their eggs, disguise it as best they can, and they return to the ocean, probably never to see their offspring again. Of those offspring – each individual has a minute chance of surviving their first year – much less to survive to reproduce, which can take over a decade. These hormones that regulate the metabolism of these fats, calcium and proteins and their incorporation of these constituents into the egg are the female’s contribution to the success of her offspring. The protein that I’m studying is broken down into smaller pieces into the egg yolk of the hatchling – it’s the nutrient source that will sustain the hatchling during its mad dash to the sargassum – they don’t stop swimming for over 24 hours. Every sea turtle that survives to be an adult has overcome massive obstacles, many of which we will never know about. However, one turtle I worked with last week bears scars to tell a small piece of her story: boat strike scars.

My first experience with sea turtle boat strike injuries was during my internship at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital in 2012. The volunteers at that hospital treat turtles for a variety of injuries and ailments – including boat strikes. I've seen firsthand the damage that a boat propeller or hull can do to the body of a sea turtle – frequently cutting into the body cavity and damaging the organs and bones underneath. It’s difficult to imagine – but even when the propeller of a boat cuts into the delicate lung tissue or the vertebrae of a sea turtle or when the hull of a ship smashes a sea turtle shell into a dozen pieces – they can often be nursed back to health with delicate, professional care because of the amazing fighting spirit that sea turtles have.

So, given that I've seen the horrific consequences of a boat’s interactions with sea turtles, and the great amount of care required to nurse them back to health – imagine my surprise when we catch this lady for my research.
An adult loggerhead female with significant scarring from a boat strike.

She has very large scars on the side of her carapace that are a telltale sign of a boat strike. She also had no tags or scars on her flippers to indicate that she had ever been cared for in a rehabilitation facility. I was deeply moved to see that this turtle had clearly sustained massive injuries as a result of this boat strike – but managed to heal on her own in the wild.
How can you not fall in love with that face?!
I felt my chest swell with pride when I saw the extent of these old injuries, she’d faced the worst and lived. As I ran my hand over her scars, I thought back to the extensive treatment protocols we used to treat such injuries - antibiotics, pain killers, daily disinfection of the wound, regular debridement to ensure the shell healed properly, daily tank cleanings and water changes, the list goes on. This turtle experienced huge amounts of blood loss, excruciating pain, and lived with an open wound that would remain open for weeks if not months. Despite the pain and weakness she must have felt, she still managed to feed herself, avoid predators who would surely target a turtle with such an injury, and miraculously avoid deadly infection and parasites. If there's a definition of a survivor - she's it.
A close up of the boat strike scars.

It was particularly emotional for me to ultrasound her and find shelled eggs in her reproductive tract. She’s not only recovered well from her injuries, she’s healthy enough to be out there laying hundreds of eggs, containing the genes of a warrior.

This ultrasound image shows a shelled eggs surrounded by developing ovarian follicles.

This survivor could be out on the beaches any day laying a clutch of eggs. Thank you, Mama, we need many more little loggerheads out there like you.

Though many species of sea turtles are endangered, though they face a long list of threats every day, I refuse to give up on them. I have witnessed a few of the horrific circumstances that kill off many – but still, some survive. I've dedicated my life to helping them through scientific research and conservation, because if they won’t go down without a fight – why should I?
Brie with the turtle. I'm so excited to include her in my study!
Releasing the turtle. After we weighed, measured, tagged, ultrasounded and took blood on her - she was back where she belongs!

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