Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Turtle Studies Connect to Human Health


Pet Column for the week of October 19, 2010

Related information:

Related site - Carapace Chronicles

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brittany Way
Information Specialist

Did you know that frogs and turtles can help scientists detect whether an environment is healthy? Reptiles and amphibians serve as early indicators of environmental problems, and veterinarians who study these wild animals are playing an increasing role in protecting human health.

During my summer break from veterinary school at the University of Illinois in Urbana, I studied Eastern box turtles in Tennessee. I was part of a research group looking at whether environmental stress is making these turtles more susceptible to disease. You can read about my experiences in a blog I kept at http://carapacechronicles.wordpress.com/.

We were working to determine normal blood values in these turtles so that sick or susceptible populations can be recognized and effects of environmental toxins can be studied. For example, by measuring such things as phosphate and chloride levels in the blood of these turtles, it is possible to infer the health of the soil and water that surrounds them--and us. These chemicals are found in potent insecticides and can cause neurologic damage in both animals and people. In fact, the chemical toxins affecting these animals may also be contaminating our water supply.

These chemicals and the stress we place on wild animals by encroaching on their habitat have caused population declines in many species of frogs, turtles, and lizards. You may have seen pictures of a frog with an extra leg or a tail, or even found a frog like that yourself. Deformities like those are signs that an animal has been affected by its environment. Recently, scientists have begun publishing more and more health surveys of wild reptiles and amphibians in order to determine why there has been a rapid decline of these species in the wild. Many factors, including stress-induced immune-suppression, habitat destruction and fragmentation, and chemical agents, are believed to contribute to the wild declines.

By studying these populations, veterinarians and other wildlife biologists can play an important role in public health. They can collect data to determine the cause of these declines and decide whether action should be taken to protect the affected species. Some of these problems also have human health implications. The idea that information from species such as reptiles and amphibians relates to overall human and environmental health is part of the "one medicine, one health" concept.

I learned a lot about turtles during my summer research project, and I hope you've learned something about how wild animal health status connects to human and overall environmental health status and how veterinarians are working to monitor and improve all these facets of health.

If you have questions about the role of veterinarians in protecting human and environmental health, ask your local veterinarian.