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Sea turtle deaths lend insight - September 5, 2011

Sometimes deconstruction can lead to insight. Sometimes it leaves one with a seemingly endless list of unanswered questions. That's how it can be with a necropsy.

A necropsy, like an autopsy but on a nonhuman animal, is the process by which a trained veterinarian or related professional, dissects an animal to learn more about it and, potentially, get a better understanding of why it may have died.

Necropsies provide researchers with valuable scientific data.

During the last two weeks, two sea turtles that washed up along Worcester County beaches were necropsied by state wildlife professionals. It is a fascinating, if somewhat gruesome, process.

All species of sea turtles -- in the entire world -- are considered threatened or endangered. They are slow to mature and have a long lifespan, comparable to humans, but most don't reach maturity. Many succumb to a variety of external pressures.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, major threats to sea turtles include "damages and changes to turtle nesting and foraging habitats, accidental capture by fisherman, getting tangled in marine debris, and being hit by boats and ships."

Many of these threats are a direct result of human activity.

There are four species of sea turtles that are documented in Maryland -- loggerhead, Kemp's ridley, green, and leatherback.

While sea turtles are spotted offshore and even, sometimes, in our bays, we learn a lot of information from turtles that strand along our coasts.

Because sea turtles typically only come to shore to nest, and documented nesting activity in Maryland is very infrequent, if a sea turtle is spotted on land in Maryland, it is automatically considered a stranding. Maryland's Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Program monitors, tracks, and treats all reported strandings.

The responsibilities are shared -- the Maryland Department of Natural Resources deals with all dead animals marine animals, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore deals with all living marine animals.

For the purposes of the Maryland's stranding network, marine animals include dolphins, porpoise, whales, seals, manatees, and sea turtles. All of these animals are federally protected.

If you find a stranded marine animal, the first thing you should do is call Maryland's Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 1-800-628-9944.

If the animal is a sea turtle, the stranding coordinator will ask you for some basic information to assess the urgency of the situation.

"Is it alive or dead?"

"Is it missing parts?"

"Does it have any obvious wounds?"

"How bad does it smell?"

Species identification can be a little tricky. Now, many people have cell phones with cameras, which can be quite helpful.

Photo documentation is very important.

Trained first-responders are usually quick to arrive and assist with the stranding. Often local officials, who are in communication with the Stranding Program, also assist.

It is important not to touch the animal, even if it is dead, unless directed to do so.

If the animal is entangled in any sort of gear, it is important not to remove it. Because sea turtles are protected, any gear in which the animal may have become entangled may be used as evidence in a federal investigation.

It is important to record your location, too. When you call the hotline, you'll need to be able to give an accurate description of the location of the animal so the stranding officials can respond.

If possible, you may be asked to stay with the animal until help arrives.

Sometimes an animal is weak from illness or stress, or wounded. In some cases, sea turtles can be rehabilitated and released.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore has a superb Marine Animal Rescue Program and, whenever possible, treats and releases sea turtles.

But even dead animals offer valuable information. Jamie Testa is the Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator. Jamie organizes first responders, resource professionals, and volunteers to assist with strandings in Maryland.

As a Maryland Department of Natural Resources employee, her job is to process the dead animals. Dead sea turtles are weighed, measured, and necropsied. Careful notes are taken regarding the external and internal condition of the animal. Photo documentation is an important step in the process.

During a recent training Jamie noted, "eyes are like a big ole present, we don't usually have those. They usually get eaten out first. So if it has eyes, it's really fresh."

Data collected helps researchers better understand migration patterns, nesting habits, diets, diseases, and external pressures that may impact sea turtle populations.

Unfortunately, injuries related to boat strikes are relatively common -- so, if you're boating, please be careful.

Testa makes 20-40 trips each year to respond to strandings in Worcester County which, because of its coastal location, has more documented strandings than anywhere else in the state. Most recently, a leatherback was found on Assateague Island just after Hurricane Irene.

If you're interested in learning more sea turtles along our coasts, visit

» Carrie Samis is the education coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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