Objective: To identify the severity of wounds, injuries or disease to determine the best course of action for a marine reptile undergoing rehabilitation.
- Within 24 hours of admission, all marine reptiles must be assessed by a veterinarian with marine reptile experience, or examined by an experienced marine reptile rehabilitator under the supervision of a veterinarian with marine reptile experience (e.g. via phone).
- Upon admission a marine reptile must be checked for:
− discharge or bleeding from the eyes, mouth, nostrils or cloaca − external wounds
− signs of lethargy (e.g. a healthy marine reptile will vigorously try to move away from an observer)
− respiration (breathing is detected as intermittent movement in the throat area, or the head is slightly raised with each breath)
− hydration levels (the loss of stream-lined shape and sunken eye sockets for sea turtles or emaciation in a sea snake can indicate dehydration)
− disease or infection (e.g. wart-like lesions, abnormal breath sounds, diarrhoea, red colouration on the plastron, softness of the plastron or carapace for a sea turtle)
− external epibiota levels (dense loads of barnacles, copepods, marine leeches and algae indicate debilitation and inactivity while marine snails may be an indication of the presence of trematode worm infections)
− entanglement (fishing lines, rope or other debris embedded in skin, scales or around the carapace)
− ingestion of marine debris or fishing gear (indicated by foreign materials extending from either the cloaca or mouth)
− temperature (a marine reptile can easily overheat from being ashore for an extended period in warm air temperatures without water or shade)
− mobility level (observe if the marine reptile can swim freely and dive).
- Upon admission a sea turtle must also be checked for:
− fractures or serious trauma to the carapace, plastron, flippers, head or jaw
− body or limb reflex (gently touching the back of the neck, forward of the carapace should cause the turtle to lift or retract its head)
− corneal reflex (by touching the corner of the eye, a healthy response results in a retraction of the eyeball touched)
− body condition (e.g. sunken eyes, a convex plastron and poor muscle mass indicate insufficient fat stores)
− floating or buoyancy disorders (by placing sea turtle in water deep enough to assess if it can dive to the bottom and stay submerged)
− fibropapillomatosis (FP); wart-like growths, ranging in size from 0.1 to more than 30 centimetres in diameter may be found anywhere on the skin, carapace or plastron. While these growths may not be a direct cause of ill health, intervention is required due to their potentially infectious character. FP is more commonly seen in green turtles
- Upon admission a sea turtle must also be weighed (excluding some large sea turtles), measured, and the stage of development identified.
- Sea turtles with visible signs of FP must have a sample collected and stored at -80°C or if not possible, stored in ethanol. Samples must be sent to the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health.
- Upon admission sea turtles must be placed into warm (23–26°C) fresh water for a minimum of 48 hours to clean off barnacles, algae, leeches.
- A rapid rise of temperature must be avoided for cold-stunned sea turtles. Upon admission they must be placed in water that is no greater than 3°C above the sea temperature where they were found. The water temperature must then be gradually increased by no more than 3°C per day until it reaches 23–26°C. Treatment must be implemented in consultation with a veterinarian with marine reptile experience.
- Once identified, disease or injury must be managed according to severity and this will generally require veterinary input. Management of marine reptiles in care must always strive for optimal animal welfare. Recognition and management of pain is important.
Sea turtles must be visually examined in the following areas during the rescue process in order to identify any abnormalities:
- Carapace- Check the overall appearance of the carapace, the epibiota load and the scutes for any growth abnormalities or trauma. Boat strike wounds can be minor (trauma to the surface) or severe, for example some carapace injuries can extend through the carapace and into the lungs (often fatal).
- Plastron- Check the colour of the plastron (red discolouration can indicate potential infection) and the overall integrity. Emaciated sea turtles will have protruding bones and translucent skin.
- Eyes- Emaciated sea turtles will have sunken in eyes
- Demeanour- Limited movement, reaction and overall weak appearanc
- Wounds- Check the flippers, head, carapace and plastron for any wounds that may be from trauma, entanglement, boat strike or mating
Subjective body condition scores (BCS) based on a scale of 1 – 5 can be used (Norton & Wyneken 2015), with 1 representing an emaciated turtle and 5 an obese turtle.
Compare the concaved nature of the plastron top left (body score 1) with the convex nature of the plastron on the right (body score 4).
Examination of the emaciated animal on the bottom left (body score 1) shows depressions in the carapace above the front flippers and reduced neck and shoulder musculature compared with the animal on the bottom right (body score 3).