Researchers at James Cook University report that a turtle-specific herpes virus that causes fibropapillomatosis is increasingly affecting green sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef. The research team blames pollution for the outbreak.

Fibropapillomatosis is a condition that causes disfiguring tumors around a turtle’s eyes, genitals, armpits, neck and flippers. According to the university’s researcher Karina Jones, the tumors are benign but can grow up to 30 centimeters and obstruct the animal’s vision, which prevents them from finding food or watching out for predators or boats.

New Scientist reports that turtles residing in a small portion of Cockle Bay at Magnetic Island, a very popular tourist destination, is the worst affected. Half of the turtle population is infected with the virus in this area. By comparison, only less than 10 percent of the whole turtle population is affected in all of the Cockle Bay area.

sea turtles

Turtle with fibropapillomatosis. Credit:MicrobeWiki

“Turtles with tumors are also more vulnerable to other infections,” points out Jones. “Severely affected turtles are quite skinny and have other pathogens affecting them – that’s why they die.”

As of now, experts remain unsure about how or why sea turtles become infected with the virus. They also cannot explain the reason behind the disease’s rapid spread.

Fibropapillomatosis only affected about 28 percent to 67 percent of sea turtles 40 years ago. Nowadays, however, the disease affects up to 92 percent of total turtle population in some areas.

Those turtles living in warmer regions are more vulnerable to the disease. Since these turtles live in very popular tourist areas, scientists concluded that pollution caused by people most likely weakens the animals’ immune systems, making them more susceptible of developing the disease.

The research team plans to conduct further analysis on the area’s historical water quality data as well as testing water samples for heavy metals, fertilizer, pesticides and other harmful chemicals. They will also gather blood samples and swabs from the animals to understand how the physiology impacts disease vulnerability.

The green sea turtles have been listed as an endangered species. Hence, the findings can play a huge role in improving the animals’ status before everything gets out of hand.