Monday, January 14, 2019

Sea Turtle Necropsies down at WHOI

Hayley Pollard collecting data. 

This past Saturday,  January 12th, marked the first day of sea turtle necropsies that will be conducted throughout the spring down at the Necropsy Facility that is part of the Marine Mammal Center, WHOI. The carcasses that were examine had been collected from Cape Cod beaches this fall and early winter. During each necropsy, a variety of research activities is conducted in order to learn more about the cold-stunned sea turtles that had become trapped inside Cape Cod Bay this fall but were not able to navigate their way out. 
Volunteers from many different government and non-government organizations in New England helped to gather data, tissue samples and other information on the 3 species of endangered sea turtles that were examined. The 3 species included the Atlantic Kemp's ridley sea turtle, the green turtle and the loggerhead sea turtle. Each spring, this work is lead by Bob Prescott, Director of Mass Audubon at Wellfleet Bay, in collaboration with NECWA and researchers from other local government and non-government organizations. 

Teams of 3 people examine and collect data on each sea turtle carcass they necropsy. A necropsy is the term used to describe an autopsy that is conducted on an animal. The different organizations participating in these events are often conducting various research activities in the hopes of learning more about these beautiful and amazing animals. 
Necropsy Facility at WHOI

Information gathered includes the turtles overall health which can be determined by the amount of body fat observed close to the heart, stomach and around the inner edges of the shell. Internal examinations also allow researchers to determine the sex of the turtle by finding the gonads. Unfortunately, there still is no tried and true way of sexing juvenile sea turtle just by looking at their external morphology. However, external features of the animal are still gathered to see if a body feature, like length of the animal's tail, might give a clue to the animal's gender. Blood is also being collected and analyzed to see if a simple DNA test can be used to tell the girls from the boys.
NECWA is leading a multi-year study on the internal parasites found in the carcasses that are examined every week. This study is in collaboration with Mass Audubon as well as Apryle Panyi, a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi. Other research activities include the collection of muscle and liver tissue for isotope studies that examine varying chemical elements to provide clues about their overall health and diet. 
At the end of each necropsy, the team collects, bag and labels both hind flippers which will be used to train new NOAA Observers who may have to tag a live sea turtle if one is caught in fishing gear offshore.  
Loggerhead Sea Turtle Carcass
Over the course of the day, researchers were able to necropsy close to 35 turtles and they will be returning next week to continue this work. Although it breaks our heart to have to necropsy sea turtles that did not survive, the research conducted will hopefully help us better understand and protect those sea turtles that made it out of Cape Cod Bay and headed south to warmer waters for the winter. 
Written by Krill Carson and Criminal Justice Intern Hayley Pollard