FWC, partners continue investigation of freshwater turtle die-off

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
MEDIA RELEASE
March 21, 2019 02:00 p.m.

Florida soft shell turtle (FWC photo)

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and collaborators continue to investigate a die-off of freshwater turtles, and the FWC is asking the public to assist by providing information.

In March 2018, the FWC began to receive reports of sick and dead Florida softshells and cooters in the St. Johns River. Approximately 300 sick or dead turtles have been reported that may be related to this ongoing mortality event. Sick and dead turtles have been found along the St. Johns River (SJR) watershed from the headwaters near Palm Bay in the south, to Crescent Lake and Palatka in the north. Additional reports of dead turtles have been received from Lake Apopka, Eustis, Windermere and Cocoa Beach.

To determine the cause of the turtle mortalities, the FWC began a collaborative investigation with the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine (UF-CVM) Wildlife Aquatic Veterinary Disease Laboratory (WAVDL), UF-CVM Aquatic Amphibian and Reptile Pathology Program, Office of Protected Resources (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries), and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bronson Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (BADDL). To date, 18 turtles collected by the FWC from the SJR watershed have been examined by wildlife veterinarians at FWC and UF laboratories in Gainesville. Initial findings suggested a viral infection contributed to the mortalities. Virologists at BADDL and WAVDL discovered a novel virus associated with diseased Florida softshell turtles (Apalone ferox), peninsula cooters (Pseudemys peninsularis), and Florida red-bellied cooters (P. nelsoni). Toxins, including those produced by harmful algal blooms, were not detected in any turtles tested. There have been no reports of dead fish or other wildlife in conjunction with the turtle die-offs.

Investigators are planning additional studies to better understand this viral disease, the extent of its distribution in Florida, and its effect on turtle populations. As part of the ongoing investigation, the FWC is asking the public for help by taking the following actions:

  1. Report sightings of sick or dead turtles to the FWC by calling: 352-339-8597 or through the FWC Reporter App. Photos can be uploaded via the Reporter App and will aid researchers in turtle species identification and condition.
  2. Do not touch or attempt to move sick turtles.
  3. To avoid spreading the virus, do not capture, transport or release freshwater turtles, even those that appear healthy, to new locations.
  4. Do not eat turtles that appear sick or unhealthy.
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