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UF researchers find fatal disease affecting gopher tortoises

Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 4:16 PM CDT
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - Researchers say there are hundreds of gopher tortoises in Alachua County and across North Central Florida but these creatures known for taking their time may be at risk.

The gopher tortoises is a crucial species because their burrows provide shelter for more than 350 other creatures.

They typically live to see 90 if kept in captivity but researchers at University of Florida found a spiral-shaped bacteria from the genus helicobacter pylori normally associated with stomach ulcers in people, but are causing these tortoises to have a much shorter life.

“We put together some testing to look at how much bacteria is present and we found that in a bigger survey of these tortoises having this bacteria in their nose was correlated with being dead in a year,” associate professor at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Jim Wellehan said.

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Dr. Wellehan said they are not endangered in Florida but are in other states like Alabama, so this new disease isn’t good for their health.

“They’re kind of off on their own third thing that no one else does which is just survive a long time as adults don’t have that many eggs, don’t provide parental care they just survive a long time as adults and if that’s your strategy then losing some adults impacts that population in a major way,” Dr. Wellehan said.

So far they’ve surveyed roughly 30 tortoises to understand the disease and find a cure.

“It’s frustrating but at the same time it’s good to at least have a handle on what the problem is so we can figure it out,” Dr. Wellehan said.

While scientists are not sure what’s causing the bacteria, they say Florida has the most invasive reptile species of any other state and one of those species may have introduced the pathogen.

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