Fibropapillomatosis (FP) is a type of herpes virus that is transmitted between sea turtles. It has been seen in six of the seven species, with cases found in every species except for leatherbacks. The virus was first observed in Southern Florida in the late 1930s and within a fifty year timespan had then spread into the western Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean. In 2010 the first diagnosed cases of fibropapillomatosis in green sea turtles was diagnosed on the Texas coast. Since then, it has now become a worldwide issue with cases documented in places such as Hawaii and Australia.
Although it has been observed in the other species, it is most prevalent in green sea turtles. There is speculation as to why this is, but one of the leading theories is related to the difference in foraging. Green sea turtles, although they live a predominately solitary life, can be seen in a more concentrated areas as juveniles while they feed on sea grass and algae. It is possible that there is a greater chance of contact, thus spreading the virus.
Fibropapilloma causes tumors that grow both internally and externally, wherever there is skin contact. Growth of the tumors can stand in the way of basic functions such as; swimming, feeding, vision, buoyancy, and can cause death when the tumors are severe in size or location. In addition, the bulky tumors are more likely to get wrapped up in fishing line and other marine debris, which can cause life threatening entanglements. The Hawaiian green sea turtle population has also been observed with some more severe FP tumors that grow inside of their mouth and throat; thus, creating breathing and feeding issues. Another concern for how the tumors can effect the turtles, is energy cost. Not only does it have the potential to cause juveniles to spend more energy than normally allocated on basic life necessities, but it is also a concern for pregnant and nesting females. This increase in energy expenditure could have a more detrimental effect on the long term population status
Unfortunately, there is no treatment that can permanently rid the turtle of the virus; nor, is there prevention or control measures currently for wild populations, including vaccines. Our treatment plan and goal at Texas Sealife Center, regarding turtles who are admitted with the virus, is it score the severity of the growths and then perform surgery to remove them. Since the Fall of 2013, when we began receiving patients, we admitted ____ green sea turtles into our care. Of those turtles, ____ have had tumors from FP and received treatment and surgery for it.
To learn more about the virus and our treatment protocols and meet some of the patients who are currently in care, we invite you to visit the center for a tour of the facility.