Researchers are making progress in the fight against a deadly virus now found on green sea turtles along the Texas Gulf Coast.
"We had a recent breakthrough where we were actually able to grow the virus in laboratories," said Thierry Work, a wildlife disease specialist in Hawaii. "So that's a step in the right direction."
The FP virus, or fibropapillomatosis, is a tumor disease that affects green sea turtles around the world, most notably in Florida and Hawaii - and now Texas.
"It is definitely cancer in the turtles and it's associated with this herpes virus," said Work. "We know from, like other human diseases, that there are other herpes viruses that can cause tumors in humans."
In conjunction with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Honolulu, Work is one of only a few researchers trying to learn more about the disease including what causes it and how the virus spreads.
"It's a chicken and egg kind of situation," said Work. "It's appealing to say that pollution might be promoting this. Maybe it is, maybe it's not. But one also has to consider animal behavior, maybe tumored animals just happen to hang out where things are polluted."
At the Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) in Port Aransas, staff and volunteers are caring for 30 green sea turtles found with the disease on Mustang Island.
"It's becoming more and more common," said ARK program coordinator Alicia Walker. "We have 30 turtles here, and most of these, all of these, came in this year. So, it's definitely increasing."
Turtles that have the virus are found with tumors that can cover their bodies, even their eyes.
"Definitely the ones in the eyes are the ones most difficult for them because it hinders their ability to see predators and find food," said Walker.
Unable to see well enough to feed, the turtles can starve to death.
"It's upsetting," said ARK's founder, Tony Amos. "But this may be one of nature's things, we haven't blamed humankind for this yet."
The tumors can be surgically removed, but the process can take months before the affected turtles are released in the Gulf.
"I have gotten a little teary eyed at some of these releases, especially you know with some of the FP turtles," said Walker. "It's just so special, and you worry about their future but you're just thankful that they get to be free."
EDITORS NOTE: Tony Amos was battling cancer when Kevin Cokely interviewed him in July, and he passed away in September, only a few days after Hurricane Harvery slammed into Mustang Island. The animals there all survived, but the Amos Rehabilitation Keep suffered significant damage, and volunteers are now helping to rebuild the center.