Marine Turtle Trauma Response Procedures:  A Veterinary Guide

Terry Norton and Nancy Mettee (Editors). 2020. WIDECAST Technical Report No. 20.


Medical records

The medical record is the permanent record for the patient and the treatments they undergo. It is a vital record for assessing successes and failures. Records also provide the basis for a database that can be used for diverse purposes such as publication, fund raising, and policy implementation. Although it is often overlooked or underemphasized in wildlife medicine, it is crucial to keep good records when dealing with endangered species.

Electronic data bases are available for wildlife. A free option can be found at A sea turtle specific option can be found at Although not as efficient and useful, the medical record can be non-electronic. Regardless, the medical record should include the following:
  • Unique patient identifier
  • Stranding information (ideally from a standardized form)
  • Admission examination
  • Radiograph interpretation
  • Blood work evaluation
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment record
  • Observations (daily), weights (weekly), measurements (monthly)
  • Tagging information
  • Necropsy report
  • Release information


In addition to being weighed upon admission, turtles should be weighed at least weekly. Critical turtles are typically weighed more frequently and as the turtle improves, less frequent weights are need. This will help ensure that caloric needs are being met.


Morphometric measurements are used for tracking growth. Uniform measurements are important. Minimally, measurements should be taken upon entry and pre-release. For turtles being maintained in rehabilitation for long term, measurements should be performed periodically (once every few months). Proper procedures are outlined in Techniques for Measuring Sea Turtles.


Standard digital laboratory thermometers can be used to obtain a core temperature on small patients (< 5 kg). Larger patients will require a longer probe to reach their core. A "large animal digital thermometer" can be found through veterinary suppliers for under $20 US.

Surface temperature can be rapidly obtained with an infrared thermometer. They are useful for checking water temperatures and because they do not require contact, they eliminate the risk of cross contamination.

Sea turtle core temperature may differ significantly from ambient temperature if they have undergone a rapid change of environment. This can occur during cold stun events or when a turtle has been out of the water under a hot sun. If there is a significant difference (> 5°F °) between patient temperature and holding tank water temperature, a slow acclimation period is required. A change of no more than 5°F° per day until the temperatures are equalized is recommended.  

Physical Exam

Detailed information on the physical exam can be found in the Physical Exam section.


Digital photographs are an excellent way to preserve patient information. They should be taken before parasite or fishing gear removal and again afterwards if lesions are exposed.

Each patient should be photographed from: DV, VD, right and left lateral of the body, right and left lateral of the head. Close ups of any lesions or abnormalities should be taken, as well.

Photographs should always include:

  • Date
  • Identifier (animal ID and species)
  • Scale

Regular photographs (monthly) during hospitalization will provide a visual record of patient progress over time.

Prompt placement of photos into case files will insure that specific patient photos are easily located in the future..

Blood Work

Critical labwork should be done in house ASAP: PCVTS, glucose, and electrolytes. Abnormalities may require immediate intervention. This should be followed by in depth bloodwork for a thorough analysis. Standard chemistry profiles should include:  AST, CK, LDH, albumin, total protein, globulin, cholesterol, glucose, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, and uric acid. Research is currently underway to evaluate the correlation between enzyme levels in the peripheral blood and actual organ pathology.  Samples of normal values for green sea turtles and for loggerhead sea turtles.

Additional information is found in the Clinical Pathology section.

External Parasite Removal

Before radiography, all barnacles are scraped off the carapace and plastron. Care should be taken to remove barnacles on the carapace so as not to damage the scutes. Pressure at the base of the barnacle with a periosteal elevator, screwdriver, or chisel should be sufficient to pry the barnacle loose. 

Barnacles on soft tissue can often be removed by picking them off by hand. If the turtle is quite debilitated, it is recommended to remove only the largest and, therefore most radiodense, barnacles immediately, saving the rest until the turtle is stronger. In extremely debilitated patients, removal may result in loss of the scute, leading to bone exposure. Caution should be taken so as not to create further damage.

Leeches are removed by soaking the turtle in fresh water for no more than 12 hours. Care should be taken to scrape off the leech eggs, as well. 

See Parasites for more information.


Radiographs are an important tool for diagnosis. Please see Radiographic Technique for information on x-ray methodology for sea turtles.

*Neurological exam is required if abnormalities are present.

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