Sea Turtles Need High-Tech Medical Treatments—STAT!

Scientists are using wound-healing lasers and medical-grade honeycomb to give sea turtle populations a fighting chance.

April 18, 2018
A veterinarian performs laser therapy on an injured Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

Bruce Smith/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Sea turtles have been around for more than 100 million years, since well before humans discovered fire or came up with the wheel or even evolved into humans. Some of our more recent inventions are now putting these reptiles in danger of extinction—but others may be helping to save them.

Of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers two critically endangered (hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley), one endangered (green), and three vulnerable to extinction (leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley). The flatback sea turtle is the only one to escape the Red List, but probably only because scientists don’t have enough information about it to make the call; technically, the flatbacks are considered data deficient.

Point being, sea turtles need all the help they can get—even if that help includes tools and techniques that sound like they belong in a Bond villain’s arsenal. Yes, I’m talking lasers.

Scientists have found that low-level lasers can promote healing by increasing cellular energy and promoting blood flow to wounds. Although we’re still learning exactly how so-called photobiomodulation therapy works, the technique is already being used to treat strokes in humans, burns in bears, and toe lesions in bald eagles.

Veterinarian Terry Norton, director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, says he and his colleagues have even conducted side-by-side studies that compare different treatments on the same wounds. The part of the injury that receives the laser always heals faster. Trouble is, turtles get a lot of injuries. “Trauma is probably the most common thing that brings a turtle into our facility,” says Norton. “Between 20 and 40 percent are due to boat strikes.”

Georgia Sea Turtle Center director Terry Norton treats a Kemp’s ridley turtle.

Courtesy Georgia Sea Turtle Center

Cuts, scrapes, and lacerations to the head and flippers are obviously bad news, but damage to a sea turtle’s thick, protective shell is even more serious. In fact, when a shell is punctured, it can release the natural pressure built up inside the animal’s body cavity and cause the turtle’s lungs to collapse.

When this happens, the turtle needs more than lasers. Norton says vets at the center pack a shell puncture with foam and then seal it up with a substance called Bioglass, a synthetic material that bonds to bone. The veterinarians might also stuff the shell full of medical-grade honeycomb, because of its natural antibacterial properties. Once the injury has been stuffed and sealed, they’ll sometimes also apply something called a wound VAC, or vacuum-assisted wound closure.

“This is something used in human medicine as well, but it’s great for turtles because we can hook it onto their shells,” says Norton. The vet places a tube on top of a wound opening to create a vacuum. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the procedure can help remove pressure from a wound to allow liquid and debris to seep out gently, reduce swelling, remove bacteria, and even help pull the edges of a wound together.

All in all, Norton says, a wound VAC can cut a turtle’s healing time by as much as a third. “In instances where we probably would have put the animal to sleep, we’ve been able to turn those cases around,” he adds.

And that’s key, because every one of these patients is important to the survival of its species. Female sea turtles grow more fertile with age, so it’s critical that they survive long enough to have many batches of little ones. But saving males is also imperative, because, well, they’re disappearing.

The sex of a sea turtle hatchling is determined by the temperature of the sand it incubates in, with higher temperatures creating more females than males. As climate change looms, some scientists are predicting a dire future for these animals’ reproductive success. Indeed, scientists in Australia recently discovered that the Pacific’s largest green sea turtle rookery is now producing females at a rate of at least 116 to 1.

“These are animals that are threatened or endangered from human-induced issues,” says Norton, referring to habitat destruction, pollution, and injurious boating and fishing practices. “That’s why it’s pretty important that we help them.”

His team’s goal is to do everything possible to help a turtle recover to the point where it can go back to the sea and, they hope, reproduce. So even when they are treating a turtle for cold shock—a sometimes fatal condition that occurs when the ocean becomes unseasonably cold—the vets will also give it a full medical makeover. That entails wound care, antibiotics, and even cleaning off what’s known as epibiota, the variety of barnacles, algae, tubeworms, crabs, leeches, and other creatures that live on sea turtles and can affect their health when present in great quantities.

Low-tech solutions, of course, can help boost sea turtle populations, too. In addition to its lasers and high-quality honeycomb therapies, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center works to raise awareness among boaters about how to avoid harming wildlife, either through behavioral changes (like slowing their speed) or through simple tech fixes, such as propeller guards and turtle-friendly fishing tackle. Staying clear of sea turtle nesting areas and refraining from throwing cigarette butts and other trash into the sea are also great ways for everyday folks to help keep these saltwater reptiles around for millennia to come.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Science Spotlight

They’ve outlived the dinosaurs, but these ancient reptiles are currently in danger of disappearing from just about everywhere.

onEarth Story

The population and habitat of the bog turtle are shrinking into oblivion.

Florida Fish & Wildlife
onEarth Story

Life from a leatherback’s perspective.

onEarth Story

Four hundred miles from the ocean, rehabilitators are working to save the species.

onEarth Story

Thanks to new tech, scientists can learn a heck of a lot about species without ever seeing or handling them.

Prajwalkm/Wikimedia Common
onEarth Story

A new study says captive breeding programs often do endangered species more harm than good.

onEarth Story

How can you tell the difference between a captive-bred turtle and a wild-caught one? (You can’t.)

onEarth Story

Conserving this ancient and slowly reproducing reptile requires playing the long game.

onEarth Story

The United States has the greatest freshwater mussel diversity on the planet, but some populations haven’t reproduced in 100 years. This is bad news for humans, too.

A. Davey
onEarth Story

Lonesome George, the lovelorn tortoise, gets his own musical tribute.

onEarth Story

A video showing a sea turtle trapped by lava went viral. Now experts weigh in on the eruption’s potential impact on the endangered animals.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.