FWC Says Virus Might Be Killing Turtles In St. Johns Watershed

Mar 28, 2019

The mysterious die-off of freshwater turtles throughout the massive St. Johns River watershed continues despite an ongoing year-long investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its partners to determine the cause and prevent damage to the ecosystem with the loss of the species.

Our Florida Times-Union news partner reports the commission and its conservation partners currently are asking the public for help by providing information about any sick, dead or dying turtles they find in Northeast Florida.

“Turtles are among the longest-lived animals in the ecosystem and they are a key component of a healthy fresh-water system. It’s important to understand what’s happening with this die-off so we can try to protect turtles in others parts of the state,” said Bradley O’Hanlon, a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wildlife biologist.

At least 300 sick or dead Florida softshells and cooters have been documented since commission wildlife biologists, university researchers and federal scientists launched the investigation in March 2018 after receiving widespread initial reports of the deaths.

Sick and dead turtles have been discovered in the watershed for the 310-mile long St. Johns River. They’ve been found from the headwaters near Palm Bay in the south, to Crescent Lake and Palatka in the north. Dead turtles also have been reported at Lake Apopka, Eustis, Windermere and Cocoa Beach.

State wildlife biologists are working with experts with the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine Wildlife Aquatic Veterinary Disease Laboratory as well as the university’s Aquatic Amphibian and Reptile Pathology Program, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Office of Protected Resources at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bronson Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.

At least 18 turtles collected from the St. Johns River watershed have been examined by wildlife veterinarians at the commission and UF laboratories in Gainesville.

Initial findings suggested a viral infection contributed to the turtle deaths.

A longer version of this story that a look at Florida’s turtle diversity is at Jacksonville.com.