When sea turtles wash up on New Zealand shores stranded, sick and starving, many are brought into Auckland Zoo’s Vet Hospital for treatment. As part of a PhD through Murdoch University, and with the support of our New Zealand Center for Conservation Medicine (NZCCM), Resident Vet Lydia Uddstrom is undertaking research aiming to determine prognostic indicators and the best course of care for these endangered patients.

The problem, in part, resides in New Zealand’s cold climate: with sea turtles, like other ectotherms they take their body temperature from their environment. When turtles wash up on cold beaches, their low body temperature compromises their ability to function well, stops them producing enough white blood cells, and opens them up to infections. The issue is diagnosis, prognosis and then managing their rehabilitation. What diseases are sea turtles presenting with, and how do we test this when their blood results are compromised due to their situation?

The research involves looking at historical autopsy data, the weather conditions when the turtle became stranded, and what the blood tests indicated at the time. Massey University Albany is a key collaborator that helps make this research possible, as they have donated their frozen samples of deceased sea turtles to the cause. The goal is to determine any patterns in the historical data, to help develop reliable prognostic indicators.

This research is currently ongoing, so it is too early to say if there are any emerging trends, but good progress is being made. As the world changes, along with the climate, more sea turtles are expected to turn up on New Zealand shores – so as species numbers continue to decline, it is of great importance to be able to make more clinically informed decisions on their prognosis and treatment.

Lydia Uddstrom is a PhD candidate with Murdoch University, currently undertaking her Wildlife and Conservation Medicine Residency at Auckland Zoo. Lydia completed a Bachelor of Veterinary Science at Massey University Palmerston North in 2010.


Sea turtle treatment at the Vet Hospital

Watch as resident vet Lydia Uddstrom shows us how an injured turtle is being treated at the Zoo's vet centre.