Cancer rates in sea turtles higher along Yucatan Peninsula

Cancun, Q.R. – Aside from marine pollution and natural predators, researchers are finding an alarming increase in sea turtle cancer.

Specifically, the leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles are of great concern to marine biologists who have found that sea turtles nesting along the Yucatan Peninsula have higher cancer rates than the sea turtles nesting in Baja California.

Dr. Maria Monica Lara Uc, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur and Health Program in charge of Sea Turtles of the Academic Department of Marine Sciences, brings to light the health concerns of these marine turtles.

She said she is concerned that since 2006, an increasing number of sea turtles in Mexico have been found with Fibropapillomatosis (FP) – a debilitating disease that affects sea turtles, causing the growth of bulbous tumors on soft tissue.

According to The Wildlife Society, “the viral disease affects marine turtles around the globe. Large tumors can impact turtles’ ability to see, swim, and eat…the tumors of FP are essentially a form of cancer.”

Marine researchers continue to study the cause of the increase of FP and have not released any specific figures, however, according to NOAA FP exists all over the world but it is most prominent in warmer climates affecting up to 50 to 70 percent of some sea turtle populations.

The cause for the increase in FP cases in marine turtles along the Yucatan Peninsula has not yet been determined. Dr. Lara adds that even though US specialists have a very advanced research health center, they have not been able to establish the source of the disease.

“We know it’s a virus but we cannot determine why FP continues to spread and grow, so we don’t know why turtles are getting cancer,” she said.

The first cases of FP were found in green sea turtles, but the monitoring of marine turtles has shown several other species to be infected with the disease, namely loggerhead, olive ridley, kemp’s ridley and leatherbacks.

Dr. Lara points out that when they take into account the other (human) factors that endanger sea turtles, in addition to disease, some of the species could disappear over the next 20 years if action is not taken.

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