DAO 111:191-205 (2014)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/dao02790

Decompression sickness (‘the bends’) in sea turtles

D. García-Párraga1,*, J. L. Crespo-Picazo1,2, Y. Bernaldo de Quirós3, V. Cervera4, L. Martí-Bonmati5, J. Díaz-Delgado3, M. Arbelo3, M. J. Moore6, P. D. Jepson7, Antonio Fernández

1Oceanografic, Veterinary Services, Parques Reunidos Valencia, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, C/ Eduardo Primo Yúfera 1B, 46013 Valencia, Spain
2VISAVET Center and Animal Health Department, Veterinary School, Complutense University of Madrid, Av Puerta del Hierro s/n, 28040 Madrid, Spain
3University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Institue of Animal Health, C/Transmotaña s/n, Arucas, 35416, Las Palmas, Spain
4Hospital Veterinario Valencia Sur, Avda. Picassent, 28, 46460 Silla, Valencia, Spain
5Grupo de Investigación Biomédica en Imagen GIBI230, Radiology Department, Hospital Universitario y Politécnico La Fe, Av. Bulevar Sur s/n, 46026 Valencia, Spain
6Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Department of Biology, 266 Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA
7Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4RY, UK
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Decompression sickness (DCS), as clinically diagnosed by reversal of symptoms with recompression, has never been reported in aquatic breath-hold diving vertebrates despite the occurrence of tissue gas tensions sufficient for bubble formation and injury in terrestrial animals. Similarly to diving mammals, sea turtles manage gas exchange and decompression through anatomical, physiological, and behavioral adaptations. In the former group, DCS-like lesions have been observed on necropsies following behavioral disturbance such as high-powered acoustic sources (e.g. active sonar) and in bycaught animals. In sea turtles, in spite of abundant literature on diving physiology and bycatch interference, this is the first report of DCS-like symptoms and lesions. We diagnosed a clinico-pathological condition consistent with DCS in 29 gas-embolized loggerhead sea turtles Caretta caretta from a sample of 67. Fifty-nine were recovered alive and 8 had recently died following bycatch in trawls and gillnets of local fisheries from the east coast of Spain. Gas embolization and distribution in vital organs were evaluated through conventional radiography, computed tomography, and ultrasound. Additionally, positive response following repressurization was clinically observed in 2 live affected turtles. Gas embolism was also observed postmortem in carcasses and tissues as described in cetaceans and human divers. Compositional gas analysis of intravascular bubbles was consistent with DCS. Definitive diagnosis of DCS in sea turtles opens a new era for research in sea turtle diving physiology, conservation, and bycatch impact mitigation, as well as for comparative studies in other air-breathing marine vertebrates and human divers.


KEY WORDS: Gas bubbles · DCS · Caretta caretta · Loggerheads · Bycatch · Hyperbaric treatment · Gas embolism · Breath-hold divers


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Cite this article as: García-Párraga D, Crespo-Picazo JL, Bernaldo de Quirós Y, Cervera V and others (2014) Decompression sickness (‘the bends’) in sea turtles. Dis Aquat Org 111:191-205. https://doi.org/10.3354/dao02790

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