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New virus in Cootes Paradise could be devastating to turtles

New virus in Cootes Paradise could be devastating to turtles

by Mark McNeil The Hamilton Spectator

Local researchers fear a new virus in Cootes Paradise — that has caused mass die-offs of reptiles and amphibians in the U.S. — will devastate the local snapping turtle population and possibly other species.

A snapping turtle that died last summer was confirmed this spring to have a ranavirus infection, and a second case was discovered a couple of weeks ago. In both instances, the turtles had face and neck lesions along with swelling. The disease quickly progressed causing organ failure.

The finding is significant because the virus has not been documented in snapping turtles before.

The viral disease has been confirmed in Canada in amphibian species such as frogs and salamanders, but not in reptile species. It is not a risk to human health, experts say.

In the U.S. the virus has been found in numerous areas with reptiles, amphibians and fish and has been documented on four other continents in the world.

McMaster turtle researcher Morgan Piszak, who came upon both the local turtles, says it is imperative to control the outbreak because the snapping turtle population is fragile, as are so many other species in Cootes Paradise.

« Now that it is here it could spread within the snapping turtle population itself causing the population to decline and from there it could possibly spread to other species that snapping turtles share their environment with, such as frogs and salamanders, and other species of turtles, » said Piszak, a graduate student in biology.

« It could have an ecosystem-wide effect. »

She was doing research with turtles outfitted with radio-tracking equipment last July in a western section of Cootes Paradise when she came upon the first sick turtle.

« As soon as we pulled him up we could see he had swelling on his eyes and lesions on the neck. But we didn’t know what it was from. » The turtle died shortly after and its remains transferred to the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph. From there DNA samples were tested in a B.C. laboratory that confirmed the turtle had ranavirus.

The second turtle was discovered by Piszak in Dundas, south of Spencer Creek, on Hamilton Conservation Authority property last month. The first turtle she estimated to be 50 years old and the second somewhere between 20 and 30 years old.

The struggling snapping turtle population in Cootes Paradise has been estimated to be about 100. Many over the years have died trying to cross roadways. So the virus, she said, makes the survival of the local species even more precarious.

She also noted that, « This is mating season, and males are fighting with one another. To find one with the virus is distressing because it is passed on through direct contact. »

Tys Theysmeyer, head of natural lands at the Royal Botanical Gardens, says, « the implications are very serious. »

Theysmeyer says it is possible the virus has been in the area for years and only now is being detected.

Theysmeyer believes an influx of goldfish into Cootes Paradise and the harbour in recent years may be a factor with the appearance of ranavirus.

« My theory is the goldfish are the root cause. They are probably a carrier of the ranavirus. If you have a bunch of goldfish with the virus and the turtles are feeding on them, that could explain how it was spread to the turtles. »

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry spokesperson Nicole Michalchuk says the « MNRF is working with the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative (CWHC) and stakeholders to better understand this disease in Ontario’s turtles. Sampling by ministry staff, researchers, as well as reports of sick or dead turtles provided by the public, will help us determine the extent of ranavirus in the environment. »

mmcneil@thespec.com

905-526-4687 | @Markatthespec

mmcneil@thespec.com