Fire in the Turtle House: The Green Sea Turtle and the Fate of the Oceanby Osha Gray Davidson
A scientific detective story, grippingly told by an award-winning journalist: A mysterious, deadly infection is killing off one of the ocean's most beloved and ancient creatures. Why? And what does it mean about the fate of the oceans? Sea turtles have existed since the time of the dinosaurs. But now they are dying, ravaged by a gruesome plague that some biologists consider the most serious epidemic now raging in the natural world. What is happening to the sea turtle, and how can it be stopped? Osha Gray Davidson tracks the fervent efforts of extraordinary scientists, marine biologists, veterinarians, and others racing against the clock to unravel this complicated biological and environmental puzzle and keep the turtles from extinction. He dives with Ursula Keuper-Bennett, a schoolteacher whose relationship with a Hawaiian turtle changed her life and led to major discoveries about turtle social life and communication, and visits eminent sea turtle scientist George Balasz. He follows the fates of particular turtles, revealing their surprisingly distinct personalities and why they inspire an almost spiritual devotion in the humans who come to know them. He also explores through vivid historical examples the history of our relationship to the sea, opening a window onto the role humans play in marine die-offs and extinctions. Beautifully written, intellectually provocative, ultimately terrifying, Fire in the Turtle House reveals how emerging diseases wreaking havoc in the global ocean pose an enormous, direct threat to humanity. This is science journalism at its best.
Author Biography: Osha Gray Davidson is the author of several books including The Best ofEnemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History; and The Enchanted Braid: Coming to Terms with Nature on the Coral Reef, a finalist for the Natural World Book Prize. His work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The New Republic. He currently lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
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From the moment the guards threw open the massive wooden doors on a crisp December morning in 1896, the New York Aquarium was a smashing success. Gotham's wealthiest citizensAstors, Goulds, and Vanderbiltscame in a parade of gleaming carriages, sweeping down Fifth Avenue to the elegant building in Battery Park. Immigrant families from the lower East Side trudged over on foot, escaping their dank brooding tenements for a few hours, while those living in the outer boroughs jammed into the newly built elevated trains for a screeching and jostling ride to the very tip of Manhattan. They came by the thousands30,000 on opening day alonerich and poor, native and newcomer, to gape at seals, sharks and other marine specimens, and all for no charge.
By 1935, more than two million visitors annually were streaming through the brownstone arch of the remodeled theater and former immigration center, making the aquarium one of the most popular attractions in the city. Many visitors that year came expressly to see the aquarium's latest acquisition, an enormous electric eel. On the hour, Dr. Christopher Coats, the aquarium curator and the world's leading authority on electric fish, reached into the large tank and, using a metal hook, poked the mysterious creature. Instantly, the fish discharged a burst of electric current, causing a neon lamp above the tank to glow. Astonished and delighted by the spectacle, the crowd burst into spontaneous and thundering applause.
Another popular attraction at the aquarium was the large turtle tank, built in the adjacent harbor. Five sea turtles spent most of the time resting on the bottom, periodically rising to the surface to breathe. The marine reptiles held a curious fascination for viewers. Some people were intrigued by the antiquity of the turtle's lineage. The species in the tanks, three green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and two loggerheads (Caretta caretta) arose over 65 million years ago, sharing the ancient tropical waters with another turtle, Archelon, a behemoth fifteen feet long. While Archelon went extinct, no one knew how several other species of sea turtles managed to survive when all dinosaursincluding many oceangoing animalshad died out. Other people were attracted by the fact that sea turtles, like whales and porpoises, had started life in the ocean, emerged onto land, and then returned to the sea. Whatever their reasons, New Yorkers flocked to watch the placid marine reptiles glide around their tank, like giant birds skimming currents of air.
In December 1936, Dr. Coates noticed several small warts growing on one of the green sea turtles. Normally, a sea turtle's skin has a rough and bumpy texture, but Coates observed that these growths were unusually large. He kept an eye on the turtle. Soon the warts had grown larger and spread. It occurred to the curator that the turtle may have had a form of cancer. Coates contacted George Milton Smith, a medical doctor who specialized in cancer research at Yale University. Smith had a lifelong fascination with marine biology, and he combined his two interests by studying tumors in fish. He also served on the aquarium's scientific staff as an associate in pathology, and so it was only natural that Coates should consult Smith on the matter.
Our knowledge of what the men found comes from a single source: a brief article about the case written by Smith and Coates that appeared in 1938 in the journal Zoologica, the magazine of the aquarium's sponsor, the New York Zoological Society.
They identified the animal as a medium-sized green turtle (150 pounds) that had been shipped from Key West in 1934. The "warts" were all fairly smallnone larger than an inch and most significantly smallerand grew on the animal's soft tissue, on the back of the neck, in its "armpits" (the axilla), and around the equivalent of our thighs (inguinal areas). There were also extremely small growths on the upper eyelids. Smith surgically removed several growths and examined them under a microscope. Later, he and Coates obtained other similar tumorsincluding a few much larger onesfrom the turtle fishery docks in Key West, Florida. After examining roughly 200 turtles in Key West, they found three with growths resembling the ones on the animal at the aquarium. They concluded that the condition, whatever it was, occurred in the wild, but at a low level.
While the growths looked similar at first glance, on closer examination they showed a startling variety of forms. Some tumors were colored and others were not. Then there was the matter of which layers of skin the growths affected. Skin has two layers: the outer, protective surface or epidermis, and the inner layer, richly supplied with blood vessels and nerves, called the dermis. The scientists found that the masses grew out of either layerand sometimes out of both simultaneously. When these growths involved only the lower dermal layer, they were considered "fibromas." When they grew from the epidermis, they were "papillomas." And when both layers were actively involved in the growth, the two names were fused to form "fibropapillomas." Whatever the name, Smith and Coates determined that the masses were composed mostly of tough, fibrous tissue. The good news, concluded the cancer expert Smith, was that the tumors didn't appear to be malignant. It was true that the growths represented an unusual proliferation of cells. But the tumors appeared to have more in common with warts than with aggressive cancer cells that raged through an organism, destroying it.
The answer to one critical question, the most important question of all, in fact, eluded Smith and Coates: What caused the growths? They offered a few possibilities. Perhaps the intense tropical sunlight somehow triggered the "warts." They pointed out that fishermen in the Keys sometimes developed skin cancer and other strange skin conditions caused by years of exposure to sunlight. Even more likely, the pair concluded, was that the turtle tumors were a response to a parasite or the product of a virus. The authors concluded their article on an upbeat note. "The study of the transmissibility of the turtle papilloma has been begun," they wrote, "and it is hoped to report on this at a later date."
A transmission study was the next logical step. An extract prepared from a tumor would be injected into a healthy turtle and then that animal would be observed to see whether it developed the disease. If it did, the scientists would be one step closer to finding the cause of the tumors. Once the cause was isolated, work on a cure could begin. It sounds like a logical progression, but there are no reports by Smith and Coates on transmission studies. At least, no one has found them. Perhaps the pair never got around to conducting the studies. Or maybe they were unsuccessful in transmitting the disease and chose not to report on an inconclusive experiment.
In 1941, the New York Aquarium was shut down to make way for the construction of a lower Manhattan bridge. Until a new full-sized replacement could be built at Brooklyn's Coney Island (which wouldn't happen for sixteen years), the marine creatures from Battery Park had to share a section of the Lion House at the Bronx Zoo. There was only room in the Lion House for the smaller fish, and so the larger creatures were dispersed to other aquaria. The fate of the original "warty" green turtle remains a mystery. It could have been among the sea turtles shipped by rail to the Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit. Other turtles were loaded aboard a steamship and sent to Bermuda. Was the diseased turtle among them? Or had it already died? No one knows.
The paper written by Smith and Coates suffered a somewhat similar fate, disappearing into scientific obscurity. "Fibro-epithelial Growths of the Skin in Large Marine Turtles, Chelonia mydas," was just one of thousands of similarly esoteric papers published that year. The journal containing the article was dutifully placed on the shelves of university libraries across the country. And there it sat, forgotten and mostly unread, for nearly half a century.
Excerpted from Fire in the Turtle House by Osha Gray Davidson. Copyright © 2001 by Osha Gray Davidson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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This is the best book I have EVER read (and I have read a lot!). I wish this book would be a must read in every school. Europeans are so much further ahead in environmental issues, when will Americans take responsibility? It is a wake up call, take it to your heart! Your kids will thank you ...