As the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, it reminds me of the many diseases and viruses that animals are faced with, including turtles. Ranavirus infects amphibians, fish, and reptiles, and has been found in Ontario’s turtles. Just like how COVID-19 can be transmitted through our environments and between humans, ranavirus can be transmitted through waterways and between amphibians and turtles. Though past studies using the PCR technique have shown few cases of the virus in Ontario turtles, after using a more sensitive technique (qPCR), lower loads of the virus have been able to be identified. This has shown a higher prevalence of ranavirus amongst Ontario turtles than previously thought. Monitoring the virus in Ontario is important because turtle populations are already fragile by other causes such as road mortality and habitat loss.
A turtle infected with ranavirus may show symptoms such as swelling of the eyes, lesions, excess mucus, and internal bleeding. It can also be fatal, and has been a cause of mass mortality in amphibians in Ontario. As we have experienced with COVID-19, though, some individuals may be positive with the virus, but have no clinical signs or symptoms, which makes it hard to track the virus.
Like COVID-19, there is currently no vaccine or treatment for ranavirus, meaning that managing the spread of the virus is crucial in helping minimize any harm it may cause. Amphibians and reptiles infected with ranavirus are quarantined just as we would be if we were infected with COVID-19.
Similar to protocols on preventing the spread of COVID-19, there are decontamination protocols that researchers follow to prevent the spread of ranavirus . Any equipment, surfaces, or clothes that could spread the virus are sterilized between sites, just as I wash my hands, change my clothes and sterilize my phone after going to the grocery store.
In the field we are taking extra precaution to wear masks and face shields while in close contact with each other, as well as eat lunches at a distance on separate rocks. The face shields have actually proven to be an added bonus in protecting us against flying insects and twigs in the face while walking through thick vegetation.
As someone who has never experienced a pandemic until now, it gives me new sympathy and interest in diseases and viruses amongst wild animal populations and how we can do our best to prevent the spread of diseases while exploring the natural world. A good practice we should all incorporate while adventuring outdoors, is to clean any equipment used between different sites. If we can do simple actions like this, I’m sure our animal friends will thank us for it!
Bushnell, R. (2018). Incurable ranavirus discovered in Ontario turtles. Ontario Nature. Retrieved from https://ontarionature.org/ranavirus/
Canadian Herpetofauna Health Working Group. (2017). Decontamination Protocol for Field Work with Amphibians and Reptiles in Canada. 7 pp + ii. Retrieved from http://www.cwhc-rcsf.ca/docs/HHWG%20Decontamination%20Protocol%202017-05-30.pdf
Carstairs, S. J. (2019). Evidence for low prevalence of ranaviruses in Ontario, Canada’s freshwater turtle population. PeerJ, 7:e6987. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.6987
Carstairs, S. J., Kyle, C. J. & Vilaça, S. T. (2020). High prevalence of subclinical frog virus 3 infection in freshwater turtles of Ontario, Canada. Virology 543, 76-83. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.virol.2020.01.016