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A turtle-specific herpes outbreak in the Great Barrier Reef might be linked to pollution

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Karina Jones, James Cook University

A growing number of sea turtles in Australia's Great Barrier Reef have been infected with a specific strain of herpes virus, and pollution might be the cause, New Scientist reports. Researchers at James Cook University in Australia have found the outbreak is most common in a small part of Cockle Bay known for being a tourist destination. As New Scientist points out, around half the turtles in this area have been infected, compared to less than 10 percent of the bay's overall turtle population.

The virus, which is specific to turtles, leads to fibropapillomatosis, a condition that causes external tumors to grow on a turtle's body. Although the tumors themselves are benign, they make turtles more susceptible to infection, and often obstruct their vision, movement, and ability to eat.

Commonly found in heavily populated areas

And it's not just in Australia. Last year, a record number of turtles in the Florida Keys with fibropapillomatosis were sent to an animal hospital. It's common for healthy turtles to carry this virus, according to New Scientist, but it usually presents no symptoms. Due to the heavily populated locations where fibropapillomatosis is most often found, it's likely that environmental factors have something to do with it.

"It is thought that pollution may weaken [the turtles'] immune systems, thus rendering them more susceptible to disease," Doug Mader, a veterinarian at The Turtle Hospital in Florida, told New Scientist.

The team at James Cook University now plan to test the water for specific contaminants that might be the cause of the outbreak.