A tortoise with a cold

Gopher tortoise with a strawberry smile.
Gopher tortoise with a strawberry smile.

I hab a cold and by dose is stuffed ub.  Ahem.  Excuse me.  Along with what seems like 90% of the population, I have been a little under the weather.  And the particular front under which I’m drowning is a category 11 hurricane.  I can’t breathe, can’t stop coughing, and strongly recommend stock in Puffs Plus.  My purchases alone are going to make their sales go through the roof in the last quarter of this year.

Take a day off, you say?  If only I didn’t have such a slave driver of an editor who appears to have a superhuman disposition.  He works at least three jobs that I know of and never gets sick, never misses a deadline—never even loses his cheery demeanor.  Don’t you hate people like that?  (Editor’s note: :-P)

During a few years of my misspent youth, I worked as the world’s worst waitress at a Tex-Mex restaurant in West Palm Beach.  Even though you’d think they wouldn’t want sick people preparing and serving food, if the employees wanted to call in sick, we couldn’t come back to work without a doctor’s note.

So, not only did we miss out on a day’s pay (at a whopping $2.01 an hour plus tips—which aren’t great when you are the aforementioned worst waitress on the planet), we had to shell out money for a doctor, which seemed as extravagant as flying to Paris on the Concorde at the time.  So, I’m used to working through an illness.  And it’s just a head cold, so I’ll stop being such a baby and get on with this week’s column.

As I mentioned, I’m not alone in the respiratory illness department.  Peace River Wildlife Center has many gopher tortoise patients that are also unable to breath easily.  But you don’t hear them complaining, do you?  Does everyone suffer in silence but me?

Grazing gopher tortoise
Grazing gopher tortoise

Gopher tortoises with upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) are generally assumed to be infected with mycoplasma.  This is a type of bacteria that lacks a cell wall, the component of bacteria that many antibiotics attack.  Hence, mycoplasma infections are difficult to treat and often result in the patient being sub-clinically infected, or carriers.  Even after they are no longer symptomatic, the tortoises may still harbor the bacteria and have a recurrence of the disease when exposed to a stressful situation.

Mycoplasma-infected gopher tortoises were first reported in Florida in the late 1980’s.  Since URTD is highly contagious, tortoises that showed symptoms were not released back into the wild in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

For many years, all tortoises that were admitted to rehab facilities and many wild populations were tested for the presence of mycoplasma.  Any animal that tested positive (proof that it had been exposed to the bacteria at some time, whether currently sick or not) was not able to be returned to its home territory.  Many of these animals were euthanized because there was no other alternative.

Studies performed throughout the ‘90’s showed such a high incidence of seropositive tortoises that this policy proved to be too stringent.  With the species already threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, it was deemed ill-advised to take individuals out of the population that were apparently healthy or might recover from a mild illness.

PRWC releases tortoises back to their original habitat after they have recovered—whether from URTD, shell damage from being hit by a car, or being chewed up by a dog or other predator.  This species is long-lived and rarely travels more than a few acres from its primary burrow.  It may have more than one burrow within its home range.

The gopher tortoise’s burrow is not only his home, but a refuge for at least 360 other species of animals.  For this reason, the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species.  He is needed within the habitat for the health and survival of hundreds of other species, from mice to snakes to insects to frogs, which also live in active tortoise burrows.

Many other species take advantage of the burrow by stationing themselves at or near the opening to eat the resident prey as they travel to and fro.  Some birds have even been known to take shelter from the cold or heat by checking into a burrow for a brief period of time.

Not only is the gopher tortoise afforded state and federal protection, but his burrow is also covered under the same laws.  It is illegal to handle, harass, or possess a gopher tortoise.  (And, yes, for you budding artists out there—that includes painting their shells with anything from spray paint to fingernail polish!)  It is likewise illegal to destroy or disrupt a burrow.  If you see a tortoise attempting to cross a busy roadway, it is acceptable to assist him, but only if you can do so safely.  Remember, your own safety comes first!  Always place the traveling tortoise well away from the side of the road, in the same direction he was headed.

If you see a tortoise you think has been injured, call PRWC or your nearest wildlife rehabilitation facility for advice.  Often a minimally injured tortoise that is able to get back to his burrow will heal much faster than one admitted to a wildlife hospital.  The stress alone of being in such an alien environment can be fatal.  Covering a crack in his shell can increase the risk of locking in infectious materials.  As in humans, unnecessary antibiotics can kill the normal gut flora and alter the tortoise’s digestion.

Gopher tortoises are ancient beings.  Living up to 100 years, they slowly meander through their lives and our own.  People have unintentionally caused some serious damage to this species by outcompeting with them for prime real estate spots and by trying to “help” them control infectious disease.  Is it any wonder they remain stoic in the face of respiratory illness?  Wouldn’t you if you were threatened with permanent exile because of a little sniffle?  If I were a tortoise, I would have been shipped of to Siberia by now.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM