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Turtle IV system improves chances of surviving health treatment

A new health care system for sea turtles – notoriously difficult patients – could save many more of the animals’ lives, scientists say.

The problem is getting the turtles to eat while being cared for. As a result, the mortality rate of sea turtles treated at the  Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) in south Florida is around 70%.

Charles Manire, director of research and rehabilitation at the LMC, appears to have solved the problem with a new IV system which minimises the time turtles must stay out of water and gives them complete nutrition in fluid form.

Discover magazine has the details.

The approach is called total parenteral nutrition. It’s similar to IV nutrition for hospital patients whose digestive systems aren’t functional or for some preterm infants. For turtles, the rescue center has developed a custom mix of amino acids, fatty acids and sugars for each species.
Treatment lasts one hour, twice a day, and gives the turtle 2 ounces of fluid – a rate that would be deadly for a human being. But it’s just what the sea turtles need. After a few treatments, most turtles regain enough strength and begin eating their usual diet of solid food again. Occasional IV treatments are then used if their blood tests reveal a need for a nutrition boost.

Rescue centers sometimes feed whales, seals, turtles and dolphins via a feeding tube, but those methods aren’t foolproof, especially if the animals are suffering a digestive problem such as a swallowed piece of plastic or  an intestinal parasite.

The key to Manire’s new system is speed. IV infusions are difficult for sea animals as have to stay out of the water while receiving it and treatment typically lasts up to 24 hours.

Tests so far show that the approach drastically cuts turtle deaths, ultimately allowing more of the animals to be returned healthy to the wild.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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