Unusual Stranding of a Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermocheylys coriacea)
IAAAM Archive
Glenn R. Harman; Kelly Rowles
Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), Clearwater, FL


Leatherback sea turtles are the largest species of reptile by weight, weighing as much as 2000 lbs. They are typically a pelagic species, generally seen close to shore only during nesting season. On March 4, 2000 an adult female leatherback was stranded on Anna Maria Island. Anna Maria Island is located south of the mouth of Tampa Bay on the West Coast of Florida. Initially biologists were skeptical that a leatherback had actually stranded alive, feeling that the stranding was most likely a large loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta). In the past twenty years of stranding data only one leatherback has stranded in the Tampa Bay area, and that specimen was severely decomposed. Upon arriving on the scene, biologist from CMA confirmed that a leatherback had indeed stranded. Upon initial evaluation, it was determined that a boat had hit the turtle, and its left front flipper had been nearly severed by a rope constriction. The rope that had caused the wound to the left front flipper was no longer around the animal, however because of recent encounters with crab trap line entanglements observed in four other leatherback rescues, it was determined that a crab line was the most likely cause of the wound to the flipper. It was decided by biologists at the seen that the wounds this animal was suffering from were life threatening, and that the animal should be transferred to CMA for treatment. Upon arrival at CMA staff veterinarians determined that remaining portion of the flipper was in such a state necrosis that amputation was required. That night Dr. Bill Goldston amputated the left front flipper. Because the wound had been opened and was so large, much of the amputated area was unable to be fully closed. The turtle was immediately placed on enerofloxin to combat a host of possible infections. Because of the lack of experience with leatherbacks, blood sampling, normally easy and efficient in other species of marine turtles, became a major challenge in this animal. An initial blood sample was taken for the right flipper. This sample revealed little information since no base line data on leatherbacks was available. Leatherbacks are different from other species of marine turtle, in that they do not posses a hard shell and their skin is extremely delicate. The turtle was initially weighed (790 lbs.) and measured (1.6 meters long), and then placed in a portable K-D pool. It was hoped that the soft sides of the K-D pool would prevent abrasions to the turtle's delicate skin. Anna, as the turtle became know, was placed into the K-D pool on March 5, 2000. Initially this the tank proved to be the perfect rehabilitation tank for this species of turtle. Treatment involved cleaning and debriding her wounds on her carapace and the remaining portion of her left front flipper. In addition we began tube feeding a squid gruel. After ten days of treatment, it was determined that the treatment was doing more harm to Anna's delicate structure than good. It was decided by staff veterinarians and biologists that the best hope for Anna was to release her several miles offshore, and hope for the best, On March 16, 2000 Anna was released 5 miles of Clearwater Pass. Upon release Anna immediately dove out of site, apparently uninhibited by the loss of her front flipper.

On March 26, 2000 ten days after her release of off Clearwater Anna re-beached on Indian Rocks Beach, in the same condition as when she was released. Anna was returned back to CMA and placed into the K-D pool. On March 28, 2000 a blood sample was drawn from the rear flipper, the results indicated that Anna may be suffering from an infection, however we still did not have any base line data to draw any conclusions from. Anna was placed back on enerfloxin and tube feeding resumed. After discussions with various leatherback experts, a theory was developed that this turtle may be attempting to nest and was having difficulty getting up onto the beach because of the loss of her flipper. On March 31, 2000 an ultra sound was attempted at Morton Plant hospital in Clearwater, Florida. The results of the ultra sound were inconclusive, however the next day Anna dropped a small yokeless egg into her tank. It was then determined by the veterinarian staff and biologist that Anna may indeed be attempting t o nest. Arrangements were again made for her release, this time 10 miles of Clearwater Pass. On April 7, 2000 Anna was released ten miles of Clearwater Pass, and once again she appeared to be able to swim normally. However, Anna re-beached for a third time on Anna Maria Island on April 24, 2000. Biologists attempted to push her offshore, to no avail. Anna was then taken back to CMA, where treatment resumed. Tube feeding Anna turned out to be near impossible, the damage done by the tube to her delicate jaws turned out to be severe. It was decided that if she was going to recover she had to start eating on her own, something never before accomplished on a leatherback. After several days of forcing squid into her mouth, Anna began eating on her own. Biologists began by feeding her 1 lb. of squid per day and gradually increased her diet to 14 lbs. In addition blood sampling was perfected through the dorsal cervical sinus, using a 20g x 15 cm spinal needle. Blood samples were drawn on a weekly basis along with a brief physical and weighing. Blood samples showed and increasing white blood cell count, indicating an ongoing infection. Since Anna had begun eating on her own, antibiotics were administered orally instead of by injection. While Anna was eating well on her own, we had great concern for her long-term health do to the constant abrading that was occurring by her rubbing on the sides and bottom of the tank. Anna's white cell count was not coming down with the antibiotics she was placed on and on May 23, 2000 after nearly 3 months Anna was found dead in her tank Necropsy results revealed an acute septicemia that had infiltrated all organ systems. In addition the intestinal walls and urinary bladder were extremely thickened.

In conclusion, rehabilitation of leatherbacks is possible, however the prognosis for long-term care is grim. Leatherbacks are not used to being constrained into small spaces and are prone to infections. These animals constantly abrade themselves on any surface, and in Anna's case a good majority of her plastron had been rubbed to the bone. We do know however that leatherbacks will eat in captivity and can be quiet calm and responsive.


I would like to thank Drs Bill Goldston and Robin Moore for their dedication in helping Anna as well as all of the turtles that come into our facility. Without their dedication we would not be able to continue the rehabilitation of marine reptiles. In addition I would like to thank the Anna Maria Island turtle watch for their contributions to help rehabilitate Anna as well as the efforts the Mote Marine Laboratories stranding team during Anna's initial stranding.

Speaker Information
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Glenn R. Harman

Kelly Rowles

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