Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury in a Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)
IAAAM 2016
Austin M. McConnell1*+; Lydia A. Staggs2
1Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn, AL, USA; 2Gulf World Marine Institute, Panama City Beach, FL, USA


Boat strike injuries commonly cause strandings in sea turtles. Anatomically, the carapace is fused with the vertebral column; therefore, injuries can not only cause severe damage to the carapace, but can also damage the vertebra and potentially the spinal cord. On July 6, 2014, a sub adult loggerhead sea turtle stranded on Crooked Island near Panama City Beach, Florida. The turtle had sustained three large wounds to his carapace consistent with a boat propeller strike. One of the three wounds extended deeply enough to visualize the pleura of the celomic cavity and its contents. The turtle was grossly covered with algae and barnacles on presentation and exhibited clinical and radiographic signs consistent with pneumonia, indicating he was in a debilitated state that likely contributed to his stranding. It was also noted that the patient did not move his rear flippers when lifted and lacked a deep pain response bilaterally when tested with hemostats. The patient received six antimicrobial injections for treatment of the pneumonia, six points of 231.6 Joule laser therapy covering his lungs and the propeller wounds daily, and a unique therapy with beeswax. Beeswax therapy was performed due to the known osmotic, antibacterial, and healing properties of honey.1 The beeswax appeared to work remarkable well in covering the cavity and promoting healing. Three months into treatment, motor function of the rear flippers was noted. In dogs with traumatic spinal cord injury that lack motor function and are negative for a deep pain response on presentation, approximately 10% regain motor function after surgical repair of the boney structures.2 Studies in fresh water turtles (Trachemys dorbigni) in which the spinal cord had been surgically transected (spinalized) showed that 45% regained some capacity of motor function beyond 20 days of the procedure.3 In this particular case, the patient regained motor function of the rear flippers three months after initiation of therapy. Thirteen months after the initiation of therapy, just prior to his release, an MRI was performed which revealed approximately 4 cm of the thoracic spinal cord was still grossly distorted despite having regained fully normal motor and sensory function of the rear flippers. This finding was in contrast to the partial return in that has been seen in Trachemys dorbigni studies.3 This case demonstrated that turtles sustaining significant injury the spinal cord that also present with absence of motor and sensory function to the rear flippers can regain normal function with supportive therapy.


The authors wish to thank the Gulf Coast Medical Center for allowing the use of their diagnostic imaging equipment. The authors also wish to thank the Tupelo Bee Keepers Association in Panama City Beach for their generous donation of beeswax for this project.

* Presenting author
+ Student presenter

Literature Cited

1.  Matthews K, Binnington A. Wound management: using honey. Compend Contin Educ Pract Vet. 2002;24(1):53–60.

2.  Obly N, Levine J, Harris T, Munana K, Skeen T, Sharp N. Long-term functional outcome of dogs with severe injuries of the thoracolumbar spinal cord: 87 cases. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003;222(6):762–769.

3.  Rehermann M, Marichal N, Russo R, Trujillo-Cenoz O. Neural reconnection in the transected spinal cord of the freshwater turtle Trachemys dorbignyi. J Comp Neurol. 2009;515:197–214.


Speaker Information
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Austin M. McConnell, Student
Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine
Auburn, AL, USA

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