The Turtle Health Research Facility was established by Ellen in response to the fallout of cyclone Yasi. In 2011, Yasi tore across the North Queensland coast leaving a trail of sick, dying, and dead sea turtles washing up in its wake.
“The seagrass beds were smashed, and the turtles didn’t have anything to eat for a long time, so they were starving and becoming sick,” Ellen says. “The rehabilitation centres were overflowing, so we stepped up to help out with that here at JCU.”
Using her background in reptile virology, along with a number of donations, Ellen turned what was once a piggery into a temporary emergency recovery centre for the stranded turtles. Upon rehabilitation of the animals, she discovered that although they were all treated the same, only some of the turtles survived.
“The problem was, we didn’t know how to diagnose what was wrong with them,” she says.
“Before you can start diagnosing and treating a sick turtle, you need to know what a healthy turtle looks like. So, to learn what a healthy turtle looks like, we created the centre, and that’s what we’re studying here.”
Academics and students from Australia and around the world are producing ground-breaking research findings thanks to the facility. The types of studies taking place vary. Some of them consider the natural behaviours of turtles, like whether they present as shy or bold and if they have a preference for certain colours, while other studies look at their immune system development or how their bodies metabolise food.
“The study on the metabolism of the hawksbill turtles helps us know when we should be feeding them before release to give them optimal chances,” Rebecca says. “So it’s also applicable to rehab centres. When a turtle is brought in sick or injured and it’s rehabilitated, typically facilities will give it a big final feed before releasing it. But can you imagine having a big dinner and then going for a run?
“We really take every opportunity to learn as much as we can, across multiple disciplines, so that we can facilitate the diagnosis and treatment of sick turtles to maximise their chances of survival on release.”