A strange virus is attacking endangered sea turtles along the Texas Gulf Coast, leaving some unable to see and eat and putting them at risk of starving to death.
"They're essentially the canaries in the coalmine for our ocean health," said Dr. Tim Tristan, a veterinarian and director of the Texas Sealife Center in Corpus Christi.
The herpes virus, called fibropapillomatosis, causes large tumors to grow on green sea turtles, one of five species of sea turtles that live along the Texas coast.
"Some of those external masses will grow to the size of softball size," said Tristan. "They can be under the flippers which may cause them difficulty in swimming."
"They can also grow on the eyes, so they'll grow to a size where they'll essentially make the sea turtle blind so they can't see and so they can't eat," said Tristan. "As a result, they slowly starve to death."
Already this year, Tristan and his team have operated on 20 sea turtles to surgically remove tumors caused by the FP virus.
Another 30 green sea turtles are being kept in holding tanks until their operations can be performed.
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"There's been decades of research into this and we're still not to the point of being able to solve mysteries of exactly why its caused and exactly how to deal with it other than surgical removal," said Donna Shaver, chief of the division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at the Padre Island National Seashore.
Prevalent in both Florida and Hawaii for decades, the FP virus started to appear in Texas less than seven years ago.
"Unfortunately it's getting worse and not better," said Tristan.
The FP virus does not affect people, but the rapid spread of the disease among turtles adds to concerns about other potential health threats.
"We always recommend [people] wear footwear when you're going either into the Gulf of Mexico, or the bay, so that you don't cut your foot and have an open wound," said Shaver. "There are other types of viruses and things that do occur in the water and if people have a compromised immune system it can become a problem."
Beach patrols are now on watch for the green sea turtles to begin nesting any day now, carrying with them a possible warning as they come ashore.
"They're giving us a signal that there is something wrong with the oceans out there, that somethings changing that we need to be aware of and we need to take notice of," said Tristan.
The Texas Sealife Center is funded and operated from public donations. For more information, visit TexasSealifeCenter.org. The website for the Padre Island National Seashore is nps.gov/pais/index.htm