Harris, H. S., S. R. Benson, K. V. K. Gilardi, R. H. Poppenga, T. M. Work, P. H. Dutton, and J. A. K. Mazet. 2011. Comparative Health Assessment of Western Pacific Leatherback Turtles (Dermochelys Coriacea) Foraging Off the Coast of California, 2005-2007. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 47(2), 2011, pp. 321-337.
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Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are critically endangered, primarily threatened by the overharvesting of eggs, fisheries entanglement, and coastal development. The Pacific leatherback population has experienced a catastrophic decline over the past two decades. Leatherbacks foraging off the coast of California are part of a distinct Western Pacific breeding stock that nests on beaches in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Although it has been proposed that the rapid decline of Pacific leatherback turtles is due to increased adult mortality, little is known about the health of this population. Health assessments in leatherbacks have examined females on nesting beaches, which provides valuable biological information, but might have limited applicability to the population as a whole. During September 2005 and 2007, we conducted physical examinations on 19 foraging Pacific leatherback turtles and measured normal physiologic parameters, baseline hematologic and plasma biochemistry values, and exposure to heavy metals (cadmium, lead, and mercury), organochlorine contaminants, and domoic acid. We compared hematologic values of foraging Pacific leatherbacks with their nesting counterparts in Papua New Guinea (n=11) and with other nesting populations in the Eastern Pacific in Costa Rica (n=8) and in the Atlantic in St. Croix (n=12). This study provides the most comprehensive assessment to date of the health status of leatherbacks in the Pacific. We found significant differences in blood values between foraging and nesting leatherbacks, which suggests that health assessment studies conducted only on nesting females might not accurately represent the whole population. The establishment of baseline physiologic data and blood values for healthy foraging leatherback turtles, including males, provides valuable data for long-term health monitoring and comparative studies of this endangered population.