MSU vets boost understanding of endangered sea turtle anatomy

Dr. Jen Gambino performs an ultrasound on Bubba to evaluate his recovery from a fishing hook injury.

They called him Bubba. Actually, they call many of them Bubba. No one really knows why. Something about the earnest expressions on the sea turtles’ faces just seems to earn that name from veterinarians overseeing their care.

This particular Bubba swallowed a fisherman’s hook and was dragged 30 feet up a Gulf Coast pier. The trauma caused serious damage to his esophagus and kicked off a years-long rehabilitation effort.

“You can imagine the shape he must have been in,” said Dr. Jennifer Gambino, an assistant professor in Mississippi State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Thirty pounds of juvenile sea turtle being pulled up a pier on a hook causes a lot of internal damage to the animal.”

A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, Bubba represents one of the most critically endangered varieties in the Gulf of Mexico. He also represents a growing number of his species being injured or killed through accidental capture or stranding along the Gulf Coast.
Since 2010, the number of Kemp’s ridley strandings in the region has gone from being in the single digits to 200 or more each year. Gambino said this is an alarming trend for a critically endangered group.

“They’re swimming in the waters we swim in, so it’s really a sentinel for human health,” Gambino said. “It’s interesting to step back and try to discover why this is happening and how we can help.”

Gambino learned of the trend in 2013 at a meeting of experts on the coast. There, she was also introduced to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, which specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating not only marine mammals, like dolphins and whales, but also sea turtles, like Bubba.

“My interest was piqued after (IMMS founder) Moby Solangi gave a presentation about what’s happening in the Gulf,” Gambino explained. “I asked how I could help with the work and our organizations’ collaboration has grown from there.”

A board certified veterinary radiologist, Gambino was soon tapped as a resource for emergency rescue operations and those animals under the institute’s care whose diagnostic imaging procedures require specialty knowledge.

“There’s nothing routine when dealing with some of these species,” Gambino said. “They can stress and die from the simplest of medical procedures.”

Performing the different scans is only the first hurdle in using medical imaging to diagnose marine animals. The next comes when the doctors try to read the results because every species’ anatomy is different.

For more common animals, like dolphins, there are abundant reference materials or experienced veterinarians to help with the task. But in the case of endangered, exotic animals—like Bubba—using medical scans to correctly identify internal organs and bones for diagnosis is much more difficult.

“With the equipment becoming cheaper and more accessible, many people are performing CT scans now, but reading the studies is challenging because there aren’t a lot of reference materials for endangered animals,” Gambino said. “It’s a real dilemma for caretakers struggling with reading the studies and helping the animals.”

Gambino explained that when an endangered species experiences increased mortality, the law will prohibit all but one or two experts from performing necropsies on specimens of the animal, meaning most veterinarians and conservationists have never seen the inside of the species they are trying to rehabilitate.

“Even as a radiologist, when IMMS showed me the CT scans of a Kemp’s ridley, I had to admit I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. I had never worked with this endangered, exotic species,” Gambino said. “That’s when I began to compile literature and reach out to experts in the field for a better understanding and mapping of its anatomy.

“It also gave us an idea for how to help that species across the board,” Gambino added. “We decided to design an easily accessible imaging atlas for endangered species, starting with the Kemp’s ridley.”

Using existing scans of this species and the published works of experts, Gambino and a rotating team of Mississippi State veterinary students are compiling a digital, visual reference for Kemp’s ridley anatomy.

“Although the old scans are no longer clinically relevant to those individual turtles, they give us an idea of all of the bones, where they are and what’s normal,” Gambino explained.

To expand the utility of the atlas, Gambino’s students have completed rotations at IMMS to increase their understanding of the animal. Some also have spent time observing and learning to perform Kemp’s ridley necropsies with a species expert in Florida.

Jamie Perkins, both a doctoral and veterinary medicine student, is using that experience and the research materials she collected to create an app-like version of the atlas.

Half reference material and half teaching resource, the atlas is an interactive e-book that allows users to not only see the individual parts of the turtle’s anatomy in lifelike detail, but also watch videos and make notes.

“Pairing real necropsy photos and video with CT scans gives the atlas a broad use,” Perkins said. “We’ve been working closely with a lot of people who are part of this industry to make sure we meet their needs as well.”

Perkins said there has been interest in using the atlas in classrooms and other educational outlets on the coast to better educate the public about sea turtles, their habitat and what to do if one is accidentally caught or found stranded.

“If this is on a tablet in a classroom, at an aquarium or in the field, it can help people learn to recognize the critically endangered species and understand why it’s something we all should care about,” Perkins said.

Once released, this atlas will be one of the only peer-reviewed, affordable and widely available resources for groups that work with sea turtles to ensure future patients receive happy endings like Bubba, who was successfully released back into his gulf-water home.

By Susan Lassetter | Tom Thompson