Marine Turtles as Sentinels of Ecosystem Health: Is Fibropapillomatosis an Indicator?
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Marine turtle fibropapillomatosis (FP) is a disease primarily affecting green turtles (Chelonia mydas) that is characterized by multiple cutaneous masses. In addition, the condition has been confirmed in other species of sea turtles. The disease has a worldwide, circumtropical distribution and has been observed in all major oceans. Although reported since the late 1930s in Florida, it was not until the late 1980s that it reached epizootic proportions in several sea turtle populations. Long-term studies have shown that pelagic turtles recruiting to near shore environments are free of the disease. After exposure to these benthic ecosystems, FP manifests itself with primary growths in the corner of the eyes spreading to other epithelial tissue. One or more herpesviruses, a papillomavirus, and a retrovirus have been found associated with tumors using electron microscopy and molecular techniques; however, the primary etiological agent remains to be isolated and characterized. Field observations support that the prevalence of the disease is associated with heavily polluted coastal areas, areas of high human density, agricultural runoff, and/or biotoxin-producing algae. Marine turtles can serve as excellent sentinels of ecosystem health in these benthic environments. FP can possibly be used as an indicator but correlations with physical and chemical characteristics of water and other factors need to be made. Further research in identifying the etiologic agent and its association with other environmental variables can provide sufficient parameters to measure the health of coastal marine ecosystems, which serve not only as ecotourism spots but also as primary feeding areas for sea turtles.