Sea turtle health may benefit from new database of blood values
| August 2004
By Sarah Carey
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - University of Florida scientists and their collaborators have stumbled on a sea turtle treasure trove that will help them better assess the endangered animals' health. Researchers are creating a database of unprecedented size that will chart blood profiles of turtles entering the intake canal of a nuclear power plant in Port St. Lucie.
"This project is significant because the biochemical components of blood plasma - the liquid portion of blood - can help us determine the health status of both populations of free-ranging sea turtles and those ill sea turtles brought into rehabilitation facilities," said Elliott Jacobson, D.V.M., Ph.D., a professor of zoological medicine at UF's College of Veterinary Medicine and the project's lead researcher.
Blood parameters are commonly used to assess the condition of all sorts of animals, Jacobson said, adding that more than 1,000 turtles are trapped annually in the Port St. Lucie power plant's intake canal, making it one of the best sites in the world for access to a huge number of sea turtles. All the turtles trapped in the plant's canal are removed, weighed, measured and tagged. Last month, scientists added a step: They take a small sample of blood from each turtle before releasing it or sending it to a rehabilitation facility.
"A reliable and sizable database consisting of what essentially are 'blood blueprints' for turtles appearing normal, as well as for those appearing sick, could give veterinarians and rehabilitation specialists additional tools for deciding how to treat these turtles and when to return them to the wild," Jacobson said.
Researchers aim to collect data from 415 turtles the first year and hope to continue the project for five years.
In the past century, habitat destruction, incidental and intentional turtle harvesting and temperature change have accelerated the decline of sea turtle populations worldwide, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park Web site. An increasing incidence of diseases and health-related problems in the wild pose an additional threat to their survival.
Today, all sea turtles found in U.S. waters are federally listed as endangered, except for the loggerhead, which is listed as threatened.
Collaborators in the project, which is funded by the Florida sea turtle license plate grant program and is a result of a grant from UF's Opportunity Fund, include UF's Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, Marinelife Center of Juno Beach and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The Archie Carr Center will create a database based on the species, size, sex and water temperature at time of sampling and will link this data to a Web page where the findings will be available to those working with sea turtles around the world.
Marinelife Center and Clearwater Marine Aquarium are the primary recipients of ill or injured turtles found in the canal. Power plant-based personnel from a federally contracted organization known as Quantum Inc. fish the turtles out of the canal. Then, Quantum staff members determine if the turtles are sick and if so, arrange for transport. Staff members release the large, air-breathing reptiles back into the sea when they seem healthy.
Along with Glenn Harmon of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Jacobson visited the power plant in June, to demonstrate to Quantum staff members and rehabilitation organization representatives how to take blood and process it for testing. He was accompanied by a UF videographer, who filmed the procedure to prepare a video that in several months will be available on the Archie Carr Center Web site to help others.
The project began officially in late July, and the first samples arrived at UF in mid-August for testing. Officials will collect blood from turtles at the power plant, and sick ones will be retested again at the rehabilitation centers where they are sent.
"While people have been collecting data on turtle blood for years, I believe this may be the largest project of its type in terms of numbers to be sampled," said Sandy Fournies, M.A., a rehabilitation specialist at Marinelife Center. "There have been some published results, but sample sizes are much smaller than for this project."
Fournies pointed out that the project would also be unique in that its results would be available on the Web.
"Any information that advances our understanding of sea turtles helps us become better at rehabilitation," she said. "The more data we have on a healthy population, the better we understand what we are aiming for with recovering turtles. Ideally, this results in a greater chance of survival for the turtles we treat."
Jacobson has two veterinary students working on related studies, one of which focuses on how long the average sea turtle stays in a rehabilitation facility for treatment.
"Do blood values help at all in making a determination whether to release an animal? We don't really know," Jacobson said. "However, we do hope to keep this project going for a long time and to build on it. For example, a key component in assessing the health status of wild animals is to evaluate health status both in the wild and in captivity. Ultimately, we hope to be able to build on this database to assess thevitality of wild populations of sea turtles."
UF audiologists sound alarm for awareness of motorcycle noise risk
By Jill Pease
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - When the band Steppenwolf sang of heavy metal thunder in "Born to be Wild," their classic ode to the freewheeling biker lifestyle, they equated rocking out to the new electric music of their time with the ear-pounding experience of riding a motorcycle.
The notion that loud music can damage hearing is common knowledge, but the noise produced by motorcycles poses similar risk to riders, University of Florida experts caution.
In a pilot test of 33 motorcycles, UF audiologists at the College of Public Health and Health Professions have found nearly half produced sounds above 100 decibels when throttled up -- equivalent in intensity to a loud rock concert or a chainsaw. The ongoing UF effort is the first scientific study aimed at producing quantifiable data on noise levels for motorcyclists.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health cautions that exposure to noise at 100 decibels is safe for only 15 minutes. Permanent hearing loss can occur with prolonged exposure to any noise measuring 85 decibels or above.
"Almost all of the motorcycles we tested reached action-level noise, which in the workplace would require ear protection," said Joy Colle, one of the study's researchers. "The loudest bike we tested measured 119 decibels with the engine revved, and the recommended exposure time at that level is only 11 seconds.
"Potentially, the vast majority of motorcyclists could be exposed to dangerous levels of noise," Colle said. More than 5 million Americans are registered motorcycle owners, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Of the 28 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss, about one-third can attribute their hearing loss to excessive noise exposure.
In addition to sound levels, the UF researchers are noting the make, model, engine size, year manufactured and any modifications to the engine and exhaust systems of each motorcycle. They will then develop an online database to provide motorcyclists with bike-specific data on noise exposure so riders can make informed decisions about hearing protection.
"At this time, if consumers were to try to find a measure of how loud their motorcycle is, they'd find misinformation," Colle said. "An Internet search for motorcycle noise levels will yield a 20- to 25-decibel range, with the interested motorcyclist coming away with no useful information. That's not good enough."
There is a wealth of data about the effects of noise on hearing in the workplace, Colle said, but relatively little attention has been paid to recreational noise exposure. Motorcyclists, motorboaters, hunters and others should apply the same standards required in the workplace to their recreation activities.
In the UF study, noise levels were tested at riders' ear levels from stationary motorcycles when idle and throttled up. Further research should include measurement of noise levels when the motorcycles are driven at cruising speeds to account for the effects of wind noise, Colle said.
Although noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, it is entirely preventable, Colle said. Motorcyclists should limit the amount of exposure they have to high-decibel levels, and although motorcycle helmets don't provide any significant protection against noise, inexpensive foam earplugs, available at drug stores, can reduce sound levels by 20 decibels to 25 decibels.
Riders should pay attention to the warning signs of noise-induced hearing loss: a ringing sound in the ears immediately after exposure, and hearing voices and other sounds as muffled.
"These new data about the sound levels to which motorcyclists are exposed will help audiologists and others who work in hearing conservation advise their clients about healthy choices when it comes to how long to ride and when to wear hearing protection," said Ted Madison, president of the National Hearing Conservation Association. "Consumers may also benefit directly if they have better information about the sound levels created by motorcycles when they go to buy or modify their bikes."