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  News from the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association                                                    Spring 2011

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Sea Turtle Rehabilitation: Caring for Chilly Visitors from the North
by Leigh Ann Clayton, DVM, DABVP (Avian); Catherine A Hadefield, VetMB, MRCVS; Jennifer Dittmar, MS and Jennifer Bloomer
National Aquarium, Baltimore

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles arrive in December 2010. They are transported in banana boxes (the tops are on during transport).


Boxes lined up in the Marine Animal Rescue Program holding area before being put into water systems.


Typical abrasion below nares, there is a yellow/tan fibrin scab over the wound and new skin surrounds this scab. This lesion was down to the bone of the skull and also damaged the keratin covering that makes up the maxillary “beak”. Both skin and kerain will regenerate fully as the animal heals. We leave the scabs in place but remove them every 1-2 weeks, depending on healing, to ensure that abscesses are not developing below the scab.


December 22, 2010
The two images above demonstrate regression of external lesions. This animal had the most extensive external wounds but is healing very well. The yellow/tan patches are scabs overlying open wounds, many of which go to underlying bone. There were deep wounds on the shell margin, the front and back flippers and the head and neck.


February 11, 2011
The animal is healing well as demonstrated by this close up image of the head..


Feeding time! Each turtle has a specific diet based on the animal’s individual weight and health status. Oral medications
are administered in food items. Tongs are used to ensure each turtle gets the correct diet and animal’s are marked with temporary identification numbers on their carapace (upper shell). Here Jennifer Dittmar feeds a number of the turtles.

In addition to overseeing veterinary care for over 15,000 animals living at the National Aquarium, the Animal Health Department team also cares for wild animals that come to the Aquarium for rehabilitation through the Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP). As the cornerstone of our ocean health initiative, MARP actively rescues, rehabilitates, and releases marine mammals and sea turtles that become stranded along Maryland’s coasts.

MARP routinely assists other aquariums with their rehabilitation programs, especially during extreme weather events. Winter is an especially busy time for marine animal rescue programs up and down the East Coast and we regularly assist with sea turtles that strand in the cold waters of New England. This year was no exception.

Sea turtles feed in the waters off Massachusetts during summer and early fall, when water temperatures are relatively warm. Animals move south as water temperatures cool. However, some may remain in the area as winter advances or are subject to early, severe temperature drops. Sea turtles are reptiles and unable to maintain a constant internal temperature. Their body temperature is dependent on environmental temperature and when exposed to these cold water conditions they develop a condition called “cold-stunning” – similar to severe hypothermia in mammals. They stop eating or can’t digest food already in the intestinal tract, become lethargic and unable to swim, develop acidosis and electrolyte imbalances, and become immuno-compromised. Wind and water currents push them up onto beaches, where they are found, often with significant skin and shell abrasions from being tossed in the surf. These cold-stunned animals develop a variety of secondary infections, such as pneumonia, bacterial sepsis, and joint or bone infections and they often require long-term care.

In the north east, these stranded animals are usually brought to the New England Aquarium for initial triage and supportive care. This season they have responded to upwards of 200 stranded turtles! With very large numbers of turtles admitted, once stabilized, some turtles were transported to other aquariums for on-going care.

In December 2010, eleven Kemp’s ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys kempii) were flown from New England Aquarium in Boston to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where they were admitted to the Marine Animal Rescue Program. They are all juveniles, weighing between 1.5 and 4 kilograms (3 - 9 pounds). Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the smallest of all sea turtles species, with adults weighing around 45 kilograms (100 pounds). They are also the most endangered species.

To assess their health, we use many of the same procedures employed by small and large animal clinicians. On arrival, they receive a thorough physical exam and bloodwork including complete blood count, biochemistry panel, blood gas analysis, and blood culture. In addition, radiographs of the body and flippers are evaluated. Pulmonary changes consistent with pneumonia are often readily visible as are digit and shell bone lesions. We continue to monitor bloodwork and radiographs periodically through the recovery period. We also monitor for fecal parasites. In specific cases, we might conduct other diagnostics such as ultrasound, bronchoscopy, or computed tomography scans.

Despite a slow start, all the turtles are now eating very well. They are fed a variety of foods, including shrimp and capelin. Now the staff and volunteers need to be careful to ensure the greedier animals don’t steal medicated foods that aren’t meant for them!

The turtles housed at the National Aquarium are being treated for many of the problems commonly identified in recovering cold-stunned turtles, such as pneumonia, sepsis and osteomyelitis from Enterococcus faecalis. New England Aquarium veterinarians have found a combination of ampicillin and

amikacin to be the most effective treatment and we are seeing excellent resolution following this protocol. Most of the turtles have external wounds on the head, flippers and shells.

Managing external wounds in aquatic turtles is slightly different than managing wounds in terrestrial animals. We clean and routinely debride the wounds, but don’t typically need to bandage lesions. Aquatic turtles heal very well by second intention with minimal scarring or wound contraction compared to terrestrial mammals.

Water quality is an important factor when managing aquatic animals, particularly animals with extensive skin and shell lesions. The Aquarium has an in-house Water Quality Laboratory responsible for taking water samples and testing the water on a routine basis – needless to say, the staff stays very busy since we work in a watery world at the National Aquarium.

We’re happy to report that all the animals are healing well, and a few have even been moved from small medical pools to a large holding pool. This larger pool will allow them to better rebuild muscle condition before release in the late spring. All of the turtles will continue to undergo routine medical exams to evaluate physical condition, blood values, and radiographs to evaluate healing and monitor for late-developing osteomyelitis.

The ultimate goal of MARP is to nurse animals back to health and release them into their natural habitat. While this is always rewarding, it’s particularly gratifying when working with critically endangered animals. There is a sense that each animal really may make a difference for the population as a whole. We hope to release all 11 turtles into the warm waters of Maryland in late spring! For updates on these turtles and to see videos of our veterinary team in action, please follow the Aquarium’s blog at!   

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