Sick sea turtles linked to leeches in Florida saltwater

Virus causes tumors on Green sea turtles

Saltwater leeches have been suspected to play a role in FP due to their frequent presence on areas of sea turtles where FP tumors often develop. Arrow points to a leech. (Jake Kelley - permit MTP-231 and NMFS #19508)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Half of all green sea turtles found in the Indian River Lagoon have turned up with a disease known as fibropapillomatosis, or FP, which marine biologists say saltwater leeches are the vector for infecting pathogens to the turtles.

“Florida is one of the areas most heavily impacted by FP,” said Anna Savage, associate professor in the University of Central Florida’s Department of Biology. “Over the past three decades, approximately half of the green turtle juveniles encountered in the Indian River Lagoon have FP tumors, which is one of the highest rates documented,” she says.

The tumors from the virus can impair the reptiles’ ability to move and feed and have been found to impact green turtles more than loggerheads.

Central Florida’s Atlantic coastline hosts about one-third of all green turtle nests in the state and is one of the most important nesting areas in the world for loggerheads.

Knowing if leeches play a role in the disease transmission can help researchers better understand and predict its spread, as well as inform conservation actions, such as leech removal in sea turtle rehabilitation centers.

About the Author: