Deadly virus hits turtles, tadpoles in Maryland
Maryland biologists studying box turtles rescued from the bulldozers on the Intercounty Connector construction site have made a grisly find: An alarming number of the tiny turtles later died, and biologists say their demise appears to be unrelated to the highway.
Worse yet, the cause of their death — an animal disease called ranavirus taking root across the United States — also is believed to have killed nearly every tadpole and young salamander in the study area in Montgomery County’s North Branch Stream Valley Park since spring 2010.
The discoveries have alarmed state wildlife officials and biologists, who worry about how far ranavirus has spread, how widely it has affected the ecosystem, and how it apparently jumped between turtles — which are reptiles — and amphibians. If the virus spreads or goes unchecked for long, wildlife experts say, it could devastate some local populations of box turtles, frogs and salamanders. That loss, biologists say, would ripple along the food chain to other animals.
In all, 31 adult turtles were found dead near the ICC construction site between 2008 and 2011. Three had been hit by cars or construction equipment. The rest, apparently dead from illness, amounted to about one-quarter of the turtles monitored by Towson University researchers via radio transponders glued atop the tiny shells. Twenty-six of the deaths resulted from suspected or confirmed cases of ranavirus, which left some turtles gasping for breath as they gradually suffocated in their own mucus, researchers said.
“Finding even one dead turtle is unusual,” said Richard Seigel, the Towson biology professor who led the ICC study. “Finding over 27 dead turtles in a two-to-three-year period was bizarre.”