Leatherback turtle weakened by ingested plastics, died of pneumonia

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Leatherback turtle weakened by ingested plastics, died of pneumoniaThe Environment and Resources Authority, has said in a statement that a necropsy on a dead leatherback turtle found that it had died from pneumonia that developed into a generalised inflammation.

The ERA added that it was also noted that the animal had been severely weakened by ingestion of plastic material which was found in the intestines.

It also explained that these turtles are the only turtles which feed exclusively on jellyfish and jelly like creatures, and hence are very susceptible to plastics in the sea which they mistake for jellyfish. Adding that a similar case of a dead leatherback turtle was recorded in 2015.

Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle species, and among the heaviest modern reptiles globally. They can grow up to a weight of 900 kgs.

Dr Anthony Gruppetta, veterinary, issued the cause of death, he performed the necropsy on behalf of Nature Trust Malta. The animal had been found entangled in drift nets, which had also left their toll on the animal.

The leatherback turtle was first noticed at about noon on Wednesday, between Ras il-Qala and Taht it-Trunciera, along the coast close to the Qala quarries, entangled in nets.

The Armed Forces of Malta informed the ERA of a report of a huge turtle at sea between Qala and Comino, and the AFM were asked to land this turtle at Cirkewwa, and ERA officials went to the scene to co-ordinate efforts.

The ERA said that it was discovered upon arrival that the turtle in question was a dead juvenile leatherback female turtle 1.85m long.

This leatherback had a carapace length of about 1.20m by 0.97m (carapace width), and was nearly 1.85 m long from head to tail, with a weight of 190 Kgs, the ERA said.

The Civil Protection Department assisted to lift the dead turtle from the boat to the quay, from where it was then transported and a necroscopy carried out to establish the cause of death. ERA also invited the University of Malta to take samples for research purposes.

This species, Dermochelys coriacae, (Fekruna sewda) is not commonly seen in the Mediterranean and in Maltese waters and though the last stranding dated back to July 2015, the ERA said that most of the confirmed sightings of this species around the Maltese Islands date back some decades. The turtles commonly found in Maltese seas are in fact loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta).

The ERA explained that the leatherbacks that come to the Mediterranean are most probably from the Atlantic sub-population. Leatherback turtles are highly migratory species, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and occasionally entering the Mediterranean Sea.

Leatherback turtles, along with all the marine turtles, were protected in Malta since 1992 through legislation which at the time reflected the obligations of the Barcelona Convention.

This species is also protected under CITES, the Bern & Bonn Conventions and under the Habitats Directive. In the latter it is classified as “Animals of Community Interest in need of Strict Protection.”

Numbers have seriously declined globally, although their distribution is wide, the ERA said. The northwest Atlantic populations were the ones that generally swam into the Mediterranean, and their normal nesting areas are actually in the south-eastern USA and the Caribbean Sea.

Leatherbacks do not have a hard ‘outer’ shell, but a carapace that is elongated and covered by skin and oily flesh which has given this turtle its name – leatherback turtle.

This turtle has no claws on the flippers which are more elongated and paddle like than in other sea turtles.

The leatherback turtle is also quite special as it has the widest geographical range of any of the sea turtles. The ERA said that it tolerates very cold waters unlike other reptiles, due to adaptations in its circulation, high oil content and enormous body size.

The ERA thanked Nature Trust Malta, the Armed Forces of Malta, the Cleansing Department, Bubbles Dive Centre, the Civil Protection Department, and MTTF for their assistance in this case.

Photograph: ERA

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