JCU Turtle Health Research

Researchers at JCU are studying healthy sea turtles in order to help the world take better care of sick sea turtles and return them to their ocean ecosystem.

Sea turtles are a beloved and iconic fixture in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and in oceans and beaches around the world. However, there is a lack of research into what a healthy turtle looks like, which makes it difficult to diagnose and treat sick turtles.

That’s why JCU is on a quest to “fill the empty pages in the book on turtle health”, according to lead researcher, Dr Ellen Ariel.

Nearly all species of sea turtles have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act due to a variety of threats, including habitat degradation, climate change, and entanglement in marine debris including fishing line and nets.

Sea turtles play a vital role in maintaining the health of the world’s oceans, including helping to sustain healthy seagrass beds, productive coral reefs and the transport of essential nutrients from the oceans to beaches. Sea turtles are considered an indicator of ecosystem health because of how closely their own health is linked to their environment. Therefore, if we know how a healthy turtle should be, we can also monitor the health of the oceans in which they live.

Additionally, sea turtles are ancient mariners who have been swimming the Earth’s oceans for 120 million years. This has made them centrally important in many cultures globally, including here in Australia. Losing more turtles now due to human threats would be devastating.

JCU has a world-first turtle health research facility called the “Caraplace” (named for the hard upper shell of a turtle), which provides a controlled environment. This allows scientists to observe sea turtles in near natural conditions, which wouldn’t be possible in the wild.

The Caraplace consists of an indoor facility that can house up to 48 hatchlings in individual tanks where they can freely eat, swim and rest on a sub-surface platform. The outdoor facility provides the hatchlings with access to sunlight and stimulation while protecting them from predators.

JCU is fortunate to have expert sea turtle researchers such as Dr Ellen Ariel, Associate Professor in Virology at JCU’s College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences, and also coordinator for the university’s Aquatic Animal Health group. Dr Ariel and a number of other health professionals from both the human and veterinary fields have taken an interest in these intriguing animals. Academics and postgraduate students from Australia and around the world conduct their studies thanks to a dedicated team of well-trained student and community volunteers who look after the day-to-day care of the baby sea turtles. The volunteers give up their valuable time to ensure that the turtles are given the best care possible while at the Caraplace and they help the researchers to better understand the species.

Caring for turtles in the Caraplace requires daily attention from the volunteers, equipment maintenance, as well as purchasing and preparing food and other supplies in order to meet all the needs of our special Caraplace residents are met.

outer shell volunteers looking at turtles

We still have so much to learn, therefore we ask you to join us as we fill the empty pages of research on sea turtle health. Your gift in support of the Caraplace at JCU is also an investment in the future of our treasured sea turtles, which will in turn play a vital role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem in the world’s oceans. Help us to unlock the mysteries of these beautiful and iconic creatures.

James Cook University is an Australian registered Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR), which means donations of $2 or more are tax-deductible.