Injured tortoises airlifted to island

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- It ain't always easy being green -- take it from four gopher tortoises that were airlifted from Albany to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center at Jekyll Island on Wednesday.

According to Flint RiverQuarium Herpetologist Kelly Putnam, the four reptiles were given to the aquarium after they sustained severe injuries from being hit by motorists.

One of the tortoises, which was nicknamed Michaelangelo, was reportedly struck by a tractor-trailer on a roadway in Albany, while the other three tortoises -- Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael -- were transported to the RiverQuarium after a wildlife rehab specialist in Thomasville could no longer care for them.

Wendy Bellacomo, director of marketing and development for the Flint RiverQuarium, explained that the reptiles' injuries were too great for the aquarium staff to properly care for, so contact was made with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

"We are really not a rehab facility," she said Wednesday. "We did what we could, and it was agreed that the RiverQuarium should seek outside help for them."

Putnam said when staff called Georgia Sea Turtle Center Director and Veterinarian Terry Norton, the vet was open to accepting the reptiles for care.

Pilot Perry Cawthon volunteered to fly the four turtles to Jekyll Island in his private plane Wednesday.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Norton said his team was examining the tortoises at the sea turtle center's Stable Road location on the island.

"These are all pretty critical cases," said the veterinarian during a phone interview with The Herald. "At least two of them have poor prognoses."

Norton explained the severity of some of the individual turtles' injuries that included shell fractures, upper respiratory infections and an ear abscess that was discovered on Michaelangelo, who had the least damage.

"He has the least severe fractures, but it is not anything simple," explained the vet. "Ear abscesses are not common in gopher tortoises, and the severity of the abscess leads us to believe he had it for months if not years."

Norton said many of the reptiles will require surgery to repair the damage, but the team at the Sea Turtle Center is dedicated to trying every procedure to help rehabilitate the four turtles.

"We haven't had this many (gopher tortoises) come in at the same time, and it will probably take up to six months to a year for them -- if they can be -- to be released back out to the wild," the veterinarian said.

Gopher tortoises are listed as a threatened species in the state of Georgia and on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of threatened species. Norton and Putnam said it is important for motorists to watch for gopher tortoises because of their unique impact on Georgia's ecosystem.

According to Norton, gopher tortoises are the keystone species for longleaf pine due to the unique burrows that the turtles dig as their homes. Their burrows provide shelter and refuge not only for themselves but for as many as 400 other species.

"Some (species) are very dependent on (gopher tortoise) burrows like the threatened Eastern Indigo snake, which makes its home in the gopher tortoise burrow during winter months and throughout the year," Norton said.

After their treatment on Jekyll Island is completed, Flint RiverQuarium Wildlife Rehab Specialist Amanda Barber said the turtles will be sent back to Albany to be released, or Norton and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center will release the turtles to new permanent homes on St. Catherine's Island.