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Enormous, Endangered, Epileptic Loggerhead Turtle Gets MRI Brain Scan

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loggerhead turtleHow do you find out why a 1.5-meter-long endangered sea turtle is having epileptic fits? The first step is to find an MRI machine big enough to accommodate her not-so-ladylike girth.

On June 25, “Snorkel,” a 68-kilogram loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), traveled more than 500 kilometers from her home at National Marine Aquarium (NMA) in Plymouth, England, to Cheltenham Imaging Center, home of one the country’s first open-bore MRI machines. These machines have larger openings than traditional MRI systems, which are too small for massive animals like loggerheads.

Snorkel, now in her mid-20s, has been experiencing seizures for the past five years. Vets have partially controlled the seizures with medication, but the cause has remained unknown. Her handlers suspected she might have cancer or a brain tumor. Snorkel is also mostly blind, has a deformed spine, and has troubles with buoyancy.

Although scans are still being analyzed, fears of a brain tumor appear unfounded. “Early indications are that she does not have a brain tumor,” NMA senior biologist James Wright told “Our vet could not see anything wrong but is taking the results to a specialist radiologist so we should know for sure soon.” They did, however, find that she was carrying a clutch of infertile eggs, which may have been in her body for several years.

Snorkel was back in her tank by the end of the day and went be back on display July 4.

Loggerhead sea turtles were once heavily hunted for their meat, and their eggs are still collected, usually illegally, for use as an aphrodisiac (a treatment that has no scientific basis). The turtles are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as well as laws in several countries.

The Sun has video of Snorkel’s travels and the MRI scan at their web site.


Photo: A loggerhead turtle by Upendra Kanda via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

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  1. 1. letxequalx 12:20 am 07/6/2011

    Anything that’s been around that long in our waters I’m going to guess it’s having problems due to heavy metals or other environmental toxins.

    Link to this
  2. 2. timbo555 1:03 am 07/6/2011

    On the other hand it may well be just a turtle with epilepsy. Your "guess" didn’t go unnoticed though, thanks.

    Link to this
  3. 3. shava23 8:46 am 07/6/2011

    The MRI should be examined for damage from Amnesiac Shellfish Poisoning, the disease caused by domoic acid from a harmful algae bloom increasingly common in coastal waters. The poison in concentrated in the food chain amd causes severe nerve damage, seizures, and death in pelicans and sea mammals, so turtles seem like good candidates.

    Domoic acid hits humans too. Over 125 were struck in maritime Canada one year from contaminated mussels, yet public health education is just about nil. Nearly all research on harmful algae blooms is funded by the fisheries industry.

    Public measures consist of shellfish beds closures for public harvesting. There are many technical reasons why this is an inadequate public health response. In two decades, I predict we’ll be identifying seizure disorders and deaths in humans as the cost of this neglect.

    Link to this

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