La. turtle farmers fund LSU AgCenter research

Richard Bogren, Colson, Curtis, Lutz, C. Greg, Gauthier, Ted

News Release Distributed 07/17/13

BATON ROUGE, La. – Louisiana turtle farmers have provided research funds to the LSU AgCenter in their continuing efforts to convince federal agencies that baby turtles are safe as pets for humans and should be allowed in interstate commerce.

Thirty-eight years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the interstate sales of pet baby turtles in the United States because of fears of salmonella. Since then, LSU AgCenter researchers have been working with Louisiana turtle farmers to try to get the turtles approved for commerce.

Based on information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, in June, 1975, the FDA banned the U.S. sale and interstate transportation of turtles with shells less than 4 inches across because they were believed to harbor salmonella. That action put a damper on the Louisiana turtle industry.

The turtles-for-pets business started sometime in the 1930s when rural Louisianians gathered turtle eggs in the wild – generally along railroad rights of way through swamps – then hatched them and sold the baby turtles to pet stores. By the 1950s, farmers were building ponds at the swamp edges, keeping the adult turtles in captivity and harvesting the eggs.

The process evolved and matured into an industry that, while still following many of the old practices, now uses sophisticated methods to combat salmonella, a bacterium that may cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, AgCenter experts said.

The latest research efforts in the LSU AgCenter include evaluating methods for packaging and transporting baby turtles, feeding turtles with beneficial bacteria that can counteract salmonella in their guts and developing methods for making turtles reproductively sterile, according to LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor Phil Elzer.

“The Louisiana turtle industry has been struggling for years because of the ban because of the threat of salmonella infections,” Elzer said.

Turtles are among a wide range of exotic pets that include iguanas, snakes and other reptiles, “but unfortunately, the ban is on baby turtles only,” Elzer said. For turtles, however, the only ones allowed in interstate commerce must have shells larger than 4 inches across.

The current markets for baby turtles are Europe and the Far East, primarily China, said LSU AgCenter aquaculture specialist Greg Lutz. But even the international markets are diminishing.

In Europe, turtles are considered exotic pets.

“One drawback Louisiana turtle farmers face is European reluctance to import nonnative species,” Lutz said. “Researchers are considering humane ways to sterilize turtles to they couldn’t reproduce if they escape.”

With funding through the Louisiana Aquatic Chelonian Board, the LSU AgCenter has embarked on new research to help the industry. The funds have been accumulated from earlier checkoff programs where turtle farmers contributed a certain amount of money for each turtle shipped.

Over the years, AgCenter scientists have developed methods for treating turtle eggs to assure newborn turtles are more than 99 percent salmonella free. But even then, government officials are concerned that the small turtles could eventually become salmonella carriers.

Curtis Colson, a research associate in the AgCenter School of Animal Sciences, is working to identify and control salmonella by developing probiotics that will introduce other bacteria into turtles’ gut to replace salmonella.

Commercially available probiotics are on the market for other reptiles, Colson said. “Now the task is to develop one for turtles, which are aquatic.”

Working with Randy Gayda in the Department of Biological Sciences, Colson is investigating adding probiotics into water for turtles.

“Salmonella lives in a competitive environment, so it’s possible to introduce into turtles another bacterium that can outcompete salmonella,” Colson said.

On another front, Ted Gauthier, a researcher in the AgCenter Biotechnology Laboratory, is evaluating sterilization using anti-microbial peptides as a method of birth control. The process has been transiently effective in mice, pigs and rats, but it’s not permanent. It requires repeated doses.

To make the process effective in turtles, Gauthier is looking for a peptide that selectively binds to reproductive organs and stops development of sperm or eggs.

“It’s never been done before with turtles,” he said. “We’re looking for something that’s targeted and systemic.”

The first step is to identify a process that affects hormone production and is permanent, he said. “We’re looking for proof of concept.”

Turtle farmers also are facing regulatory requirements that could potentially reduce the number of baby turtles that can be shipped in a single carton.

“This is good example of the regulatory atmosphere the turtle industry has to work with,” Lutz said.

Some officials are concerned hatchlings are packed too tightly for shipment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has suggested they should be packed 250 to a container rather than the traditional 500.

Lutz said this gives the turtles too much room inside the box during shipping. They can move too freely, are more apt to be damaged by rough movement and are more likely to dry out much more quickly. “Tight packing maintains moisture and holds hatchlings in place like having a seat belt,” he said

Data show reducing packing density is not in the best interest of the turtles, Lutz said. He’s evaluating packaging configurations and materials that can provide the best environment for the turtles.

Rick Bogren
7/18/2013 1:09:25 AM
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