Sea turtles are adapted to their marine environment, and they possess unique anatomic and physiologic features that influence their restraint and handling. The wing-like front flippers are used for propulsion, while the oar-shaped hind limbs usually function as rudders for steering. The front flippers are very strong and can cause serious injury to the turtle and/or handler if not restrained properly. Although healthy sea turtles will slap with their flippers and may try to bite, manual restraint can be used for most non-invasive procedures.
Handling small sea turtles
Grasp small sea turtles along the anterior and lateral margins of the shell while the flippers are restrained at the shoulder with both hands (Fig 1). The turtle is pulled close to the handler’s body when carried.
It is important to control the flippers while still allowing some movement. Small green turtles (Chelonia mydas) are especially prone to proximal humeral fractures during handling (Fig 2). Such injuries are more likely to occur when the forelimbs are overly restricted or when the animal is restrained by the flippers alone.
Handling large sea turtles
It is best to have two or more individuals restrain large sea turtles. Firmly grasp the turtle by the carapace, just caudal to the head, with one hand and along the posterior carapace dorsal to the hind flippers with the other hand (Fig 3, Fig 4).
Regardless of patient size, covering the eyes may help calm the turtle (Fig 5).
At the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (GSTC), several different sizes of restraint devices called “Turtle Tamers” aid in weighing and examining sea turtles (Fig 6, Fig 7). Inner tubes and tires can also be used to position turtles and provide padding (Fig 8).
Specially designed slings may be needed to lift heavy adults (Fig 9, Fig 10). The GSTC has custom-made slings created by Ortega’s Canvas & Sail Repair (Carlsbad, California).
Once in the hospital setting, low, wheeled, padded transport, or even wheelbarrows, can be invaluable for moving large turtles (Fig 11).
Take care when handling debilitated turtles. Several cases of pericardial and cardiac tears by the sharp plastron bones have been documented due to the mobility of the sharp entoplastron and hyoplastron bones. These bones are particularly mobile in debilitated loggerheads (Fig 12, Fig 13).
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Norton TM. Sea turtle rehabilitation. In: Miller RE, Fowler M (eds). Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine Current Therapy Volume 7. St. Louis, MO:Elsevier Saunders;2012: 239, 242.
Wyneken J. The Anatomy of Sea Turtles. U.S. Department of Commerce NOAA Technical Memorandum. NMFS-SEFSC-470, 1-172, 2001.
Wyneken J, Mader DR, Weber ES, Merigo C. Medical care of sea turtles. In: Mader DR (ed): Reptile Medicine and Surgery. Philadelphia, PA, WB Saunders, 2006:972-1007.
Norton T, Wyneken J. Sea turtle restraint. January 27, 2015. LafeberVet Web site. Available at https://lafeber.com/vet/sea-turtle-restraint/