Georgia Wildlife Health Program and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2013

Terry M. Norton, DVM, DACZM

Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Jekyll Island Authority, Jekyll Island, GA, USA


Throughout my veterinary career, I have been very interested in free-ranging wildlife. While working on St. Catherines Island (SCI) in coastal Georgia, I was able to develop the Georgia Wildlife Health Program. The primary goals of this program are to assist conservation organizations on various aspects of wildlife health and disease issues and to provide veterinary services to wildlife biologists and graduate students. The focus of the program has been on health-related issues pertaining to wild reptiles and birds.1-3,6-10,12-16

In 2000, we partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Field Veterinary Program on a global sea turtle health assessment project.4 Georgia was added as the North American site because of the relationship WCS had with SCI. The work in Georgia included establishing baseline health parameters for several of the life stages of the loggerhead sea turtle.5 In addition to evaluating healthy turtles, we started to be called upon to do the initial evaluation of stranded sea turtles. Through this work, it became apparent that a sea turtle rehabilitation center was needed in coastal Georgia.11

The original site for the facility was to be on SCI, a remote barrier island which is only assessable by boat. I started to fund raise on my own by writing grants and developing some unique methods to raise awareness and funding. The “Turtle Crawl” was established in 2003 with the goal of creating awareness and raising funds for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (GSTC). I eventually realized that I was not going to be able to generate enough money to build the center. Furthermore, it became apparent that public education was going to be a critical component of the GSTC’s mission and this was going to be difficult due to the remoteness of SCI. We approached the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) and the Jekyll Island Foundation (JIF) in 2003 about the idea of starting a sea turtle conservation center on Jekyll Island. With the full support of these organizations and the collaborative efforts of many others, the idea became a reality.11 A fund raising campaign was initiated by the JIF which ultimately raised approximately three million dollars to cover the costs of the new facility.

The GSTC, a department of the JIA, officially opened its doors on June 16, 2007. One of the unique features of the GSTC is that it integrates rehabilitation, research, professional student training, and interactive education for the public. Approximately 100,000 visitors tour the GSTC annually. The center has a staff of thirteen full-time and several seasonal hourly staff. Additionally, AmeriCorps members, rotating veterinary externs, graduate students, and more than 150 volunteers frequent the Center on a regular basis.


Three species of sea turtles, the loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, and green, are commonly presented to the GSTC for rehabilitation. In addition to Georgia, turtles have come from Florida, North Carolina, and even Massachusetts. Some of the more common problems include boat strike and other traumatic injuries, fishing line and hook entanglements and ingestion, fibropapillomatosis, flotation abnormities, and cold stunning. The GSTC also treats other wild turtles native to Georgia. The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) lives in the marshes surrounding Jekyll Island and has been another focus species for the GSTC.


Sea turtles are used as a flagship to represent the entire marine ecosystem. Creating interactive and engaging educational programs has been the key in spreading this message. For example, a window from the exhibit gallery looking into the turtle hospital allows visitors to observe treatments, diagnostic procedures and surgeries first hand. Seeing the turtles and their medical problems up close and personal has a lasting effect on both children and adults.


Research is the third pillar of the center's mission, which consists of a unique mix of veterinary medical and ecological research. Some examples include:

  • A nesting sea turtle monitoring, management and research program includes night and dawn patrol for nesting sea turtles, primarily loggerheads. This program includes flipper and P.I.T. tagging, morphometric measurements, sample collection for a variety of projects, and documenting nest location and providing protection from predators and inundation.
  • Satellite telemetry of rehabilitated sea turtles to monitor their post-release behaviors and survivorship.
  • Loggerhead nutritional health related research is being conducted to establishing normal values for vitamins, minerals, and lipids in free-ranging loggerhead sea turtles. Additionally, samples are taken from turtles coming to the GSTC for rehabilitation at set time periods as they recover. Common prey items have been analyzed nutritionally. We are now developing tube feeding formulas for critically ill sea turtles and a vitamin supplement based on the information gathered.
  • Tramadol pharmacokinetics in loggerhead sea turtles.
  • A diamondback terrapin conservation program focuses on efforts to reduce mortality from automobiles on the Jekyll Island Causeway. Rehabilitation, education, research, and mitigation efforts are all important for this program’s success.

Professional Training

The GSTC veterinary externship program has grown to the point where we have one or more veterinary students working with us throughout the year. Students come from all over the US as well as a number of other countries.

In 2009, the GSTC was awarded a Corporation for National and Community Service/Georgia Commission for Service and Volunteerism AmeriCorps grant to expand our internship program. This grant has enabled us to have 11 members present for a full year and six to eight members present for 6 mo to work in the areas of husbandry, education, research, and volunteer coordination.

International Programs

Our international programs are focused on training biologists and veterinarians, educating children and adults, and providing scientific expertise. The GSTC has developed extensive collaborative programs with our partners (Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (RUSVM) and the St. Kitts’ Sea Turtle Monitoring Network (SKSTMN)) in St. Kitts, West Indies. We are developing programs that focus on training sea turtle biologists and veterinarians on various aspects of sea turtle conservation. Staff from the GSTC have traveled to Costa Rica to provide expertise and training and biologists and veterinarians from Costa Rica have trained with us at the GSTC.


I would like to thank all of the current and past GSTC staff and our supporters for making this work possible.

Literature Cited

1.  Carlson-Bremer, D., T.M. Norton, K.V. Gilardi, E.S. Dierenfeld, B. Winn, F.J. Sanders, C. Cray, M. Oliva, T.C. Chen, S.E. Gibbs, M. Sepúlved, and C.K. Johnson. 2010. Health Assessment of American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliates palliates) in Georgia and South Carolina. J. Wildl. Dis. 46: 772–780.

2.  Chaffin, K., T.M. Norton, K. Gilardi, R. Poppenga, J.B. Jensen, P. Moler, C. Cray, E.S. Dierenfeld, T. Chen, M. Oliva, F.C. Origgi, S. Gibbs, L. Mazzaro, and J. Mazet. 2008. Health assessment of free-ranging alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) in Georgia and Florida. J. Wildl. Dis. 44: 670–686.

3.  Day, R.D., J.M. Keller, C.A. Harms, A.L. Segars, W.M. Cluse, M.H. Godfrey, M. Lee, M. Peden–Adams, K. Thorvalson, M. Dodd M, and T. Norton. 2010. Comparison of mercury burdens in chronically debilitated and healthy loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). J. Wildl. Dis. 46: 111–117.

4.  Deem, S.L., G.P. Sounguet, A.R. Alleman, C. Cray, T.M.. Norton, E.S. Dierenfeld, R.H. Poppenga, and W.B. Karesh. 2006. Blood values in free-ranging nesting leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) on the coast of the Republic of Gabon. J. Zoo  Wildl. Med. 37: 464–471.

5.  Deem, S.L., T.M. Norton, M. Mitchell, A. Segars, R.A. Alleman, C. Cray, R.H. Poppenga, M. Dodd, and W.B. Karesh. 2009. Comparison of blood values in foraging, nesting, and stranded free-ranging loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) along the coast of Georgia, USA. J. Wildl. Dis. 45: 41–56.

6.  Haman, K., T.M. Norton, A. Thomas, A. Dove, and F. Tseng. 2012. Baseline Health Parameters and species comparisons between free-ranging Atlantic sharpnose (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae), bonnethead (Sphyrna tiburo), and spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) sharks in Georgia, Florida, and Washington States, USA. J. Wildl. Dis. 48:295–306.

7.  Haman, K., T.M. Norton, A. Thomas A, N. Nemeth, and K. Keel. 2012. Mortality events in Greater Shearwaters (Puffinus gravis) along the east coast of the United States. J. Wildl. Dis.

8.  Hyslop, N.L., J.M. Meyers, R.J. Cooper, and T.M. Norton. 2009. Survival of radio-implanted Drymarchon couperi (Eastern indigo snake) in relation to body size and sex. Herpetologica. 65: 199–206.

9.  Johnson, A.P., A.P. Pessier, J.F.X. Wellehan, A. Childress, T.M. Norton TM., N.L. Stedman, D.C. Bloom, W. Belzer, V.R. Titus, R. Wagner, J.W. Brooks, J. Spratt, and E.R. Jacobson. 2008. Ranavirus infection of free-ranging and captive box turtles and tortoises in the United States. J. Wildl. Dis. 44: 851–863.

10.  Johnson, A.J., L. Wendland, T.M. Norton, B. Belzer, and E.R. Jacobson. 2010. Development and use of an indirect enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for detection of iridovirus exposure in gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) and eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina). Vet. Micro. 142: 160–167.

11.  Norton, T.M., 2005. Sea turtle conservation in Georgia and an overview of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, Georgia. Georgia. J. Science. 63: 208–230.

12.  Stevenson, D.J., K.M. Enge, L.D. Carlile, K.J. Dyer, T.M. Norton, N.L. Hyslop, and R.A. Kiltie. 2009. An eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) mark-recapture study in southeastern Georgia. Herpetol. Cons. Biol. 4: 30–42.

13.  Stevenson, D.J., M.J. Bolt, D.J. Smith, K.M. Enge, N.L. Hyslop, T.M. Norton, and K.J. Dyer. 2010. Prey Records for the Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi). Southeast. Nat. 9: 1–18.

14.  Telford, S.R., T.M. Norton, P.E. Moler, and J.B. Jensen. 2009. A new hemogregarina species of the alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii (Testudines: Chelydridae), in Georgia and Florida that produces macromeronts in circulating erythrocytes. J. Parasit. 95:208–214.

15.  Tuberville, T.D., T.M. Norton, B.D. Todd, and J.S. Spratt. 2008. Long-term apparent survival of translocated gopher tortoises: a comparison of newly released and previously established animals. Biol. Conserv. 141: 2690–2697.

16.  Tuberville, T.D., T.M. Norton, B.T. Waffa, C. Hagen, and T.C. Glen. 2011. Mating system in a gopher tortoise population established through multiple translocations: Apparent advantage of prior residence. Biol. Conserv. 144: 175–183.


Speaker Information
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Terry M. Norton, DVM, DACZM
Jekyll Island Authority
Georgia Sea Turtle Center
Jekyll Island, GA, USA

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