News & Press: NZVA news

Turtle crazy

Sunday, 2 September 2018  
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Since her first encounter with sea turtles, Auckland Zoo veterinarian Lydia Uddstrom has been fascinated. Now, thanks to a grant from the NZVA’s Wildlife Society, she is undertaking research that could help in the assessment and rehabilitation of turtles who are stranded on New Zealand’s shores.



 

I’ve always been known as animal-crazy, so it was no surprise to anyone that I chose veterinary medicine as a career. I have also always had an interest in animals beyond the domestic, and decided fairly early on to get into zoo and wildlife work. Between stints of volunteering and working at Wellington Zoo, I spent time in cattle and small animal practice, before deciding to pursue zoo medicine full-time. I applied for the Wildlife and Conservation Medicine Residency Programme, a collaborative initiative between the School of Veterinary and Life Sciences and Research and Development at Murdoch University and the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine at Auckland Zoo, where I’ve been based ever since.

The residency is aimed at experienced veterinarians who wish to pursue postgraduate training in conservation medicine and to develop clinical skills working with wildlife, as well as with the largest collection of zoo species in New Zealand. As part of the three-year programme, the resident undertakes postgraduate coursework and a research dissertation towards a professional doctorate degree (Doctor of Veterinary Medical Science – Wildlife and
Conservation Medicine).

Conservation medicine links the three sectors of environmental, animal and human health, opening opportunities for trans-disciplinary collaboration and expanded insights into the nature and causes of diseases affecting the conservation of wildlife. We went through a list of criteria when choosing a topic for my research, including its relevance to work being done at Auckland Zoo’s veterinary hospital. Ideally, the topic also needed to be based on native species and would help to answer questions to assist the future management of cases.

Early on in my time at the zoo, I encountered my first sea turtle. I was immediately fascinated by an animal so unlike any I had come into contact with before.

Every year, sea turtles are found stranded on beaches around New Zealand and are taken for veterinary treatment. The majority of these animals are taken to Auckland Zoo, where they are treated in conjunction with Auckland-based aquarium Kelly Tarlton’s and the SEA LIFE Trust. As a long-lived species inhabiting coastal waters, sea turtles are experiencing arguably the greatest changes in this marine environment, so are excellent sentinels for marine health.

Five species of marine turtle have been sighted in New Zealand, with their conservation status ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered. Although New Zealand’s coastal waters are considered marginal marine turtle habitat, recent research indicates that there is a population of immature green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) present in our northern harbours year-round. Furthermore, the number of recorded sightings appears to be growing exponentially, with an associated increase in strandings. For wildlife undergoing veterinary assessments during rescue and rehabilitation, a significant part of the initial assessment and ongoing monitoring often involves the analysis of biochemical and haematological parameters. Currently, there are no published evaluations of the diagnostic techniques used in the assessment of marine turtles stranded in New Zealand or of the success of intervention strategies.

One of the challenges of marine turtle medicine is that marine turtles often do not show typical inflammatory profiles within their white blood cell counts. As part of my project, stored serum samples from turtles with known outcomes (released, currently in rehab or died during rehab attempt) will be sent for serum protein electrophoresis and serum amyloid A testing. These analytes will be evaluated in conjunction with the fibrinogen and haematology results from the original testing of the samples to determine if any of these tests are accurate indicators of inflammation.

There is also increasing interest in the development of indices to assist clinicians in the assessment of a patient’s prognosis for a recovery to full function. Should any of the testing prove a reliable indicator of eventual outcomes, it could potentially be incorporated into an index that would be of considerable value in a marine turtle rehabilitation situation, allowing for the prioritisation of staff time and resources and providing guidance on euthanasia decisions.

I received the Marion Cunningham Memorial Fund Grant, awarded by the NZVA’s Wildlife Society special interest branch, and it has been integral to this work. It gave me the resources to reanalyse the serum stored in our serum bank for the additional parameters of this study. This was critical to allow for the investment of additional funds into these complicated cases, and to make progress towards developing better testing for these animals when they arrive in hospital. The grant is awarded annually to students engaging in research that is practical and relevant to current wildlife concerns.

Each year the branch also offers a Practitioners Grant. This grant is for $2,000 and is awarded to practising veterinarians. It is aimed at supporting veterinarians to do wildlife-focused continuing education, which may involve up-skilling, research or other involvement in New Zealand wildlife. Information about both grants is available on the Wildlife Society page of the NZVA website. Applications for the Practitioner’s Grant are open from 1 September to 31 October 2018.