A frequent theme of my SRMP blogs is how little we know. Usually I find that very uplifting (there will always be a quest for knowledge!), but not in the case of the Burmese Star Tortoise.
Very little is know about the ecology of this endangered tortoise because there are so few to be studied. As of the early 2000s, Burmese Star Tortoises (found only in Myanmar) were believed to be extinct in the wild. Over-harvesting, driven in part by the international pet trade, is largely responsible. Therefore, in 2007, remaining tortoises were captured and brought to special “head-start” facilities to be bred with the hope of one day reestablishing a viable, wild population.
A captive population that started with fewer than 20 tortoises is currently over 8,000 in 4 assurance colonies in Myanmar. And now, conservationists are starting to release these captive-bred tortoises back into the wild; however, before they do, all tortoises need to pass a health check. But how can you tell a turtle is healthy?
Dr. Suzanne Macey and her students Ariana and Michelle are working with a colleague, Dr. Bonnie Raphael, from the Wildlife Conservation Society (aka, the Bronx Zoo), to review the results from pathogen and hematological data that has been collected on these tortoises since 2013. Hematological screening can be used to flag problems like anemia, dehydration, or signs of prolonged infection. Those individual tortoises with immediate poor diagnoses, obviously receive medical treatment. Those that are cleared are considered for release.
Ariana and Michelle are taking a step back and are investigating the health of the captive head-start population as a whole. By analyzing the existing data, they are using statistical models to uncover patterns that can lead to creating better health standards for this poorly understood tortoise. E.g., what is a normal white blood cell count for a healthy tortoise? Do critical thresholds vary with sex or at the different head-start facilities? Vets don’t have this information, but the creation of “wellness” health standards for these tortoises is crucial for their future releases. This is why they need the results of Suzanne, Michelle, and Ariana’s study.