Nova Scotia

Leatherback turtle that washed up in Cape Breton died of starvation

A rare leatherback turtle found along the icy shoreline of the Bras d'Or Lake in Cape Breton, N.S., appears to have died from starvation, says the wildlife pathologist who conducted a necropsy on it.

Adult turtle was emaciated, but didn't show signs of disease or entanglement, pathologist says

The leatherback turtle found dead in the ice near Cape Breton earlier this week appears to have died of starvation. (Sue MacLean/Facebook)

A rare leatherback turtle found along the icy shoreline of the Bras d'Or Lake in Cape Breton, N.S., appears to have died from starvation, says the wildlife pathologist who conducted a necropsy on it.

Laura Bourque, of the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative, conducted the examination Wednesday evening at a lab in Charlottetown. The turtle didn't show signs of disease or entanglement, she said.

"It's a big one. Because it was emaciated, it didn't weigh quite as much as expected. It weighed about 640 pounds [290 kilograms]," said Bourque. "But its carapace, or its shell, was close to two metres in length, which is an adult-size carapace."

An endangered species in Canada, leatherback turtles are known to swim up to 12,000 kilometres a year and dive to depths of up to 1.2 kilometres. But they usually only come ashore to nest on warm tropical and subtropical beaches, so it's a bit of a mystery as to how the turtle ended up so far north in winter and so close to land in the inland sea.

Laura Bourque conducted the necropsy on the turtle which was found in the Bras d'Or Lake. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

While Bourque said it's never good news to have to do a necropsy on this "majestic" species, the preliminary findings don't suggest anything out of the ordinary that hasn't been found in the 20 or so previous necropsies she's done on leatherback turtles.

The discovery of the turtle — made by Ron MacLean in Islandview, N.S., last week — is the first documented case of a leatherback in the Bras d'Or region, although there have been many anecdotal reports over the years.

A makeshift ramp was used to bring the turtle out of the water. (Sue MacLean/Facebook)

"We don't normally, in any part of the leatherback's range, encounter leatherbacks far inland, and I would consider this a case of a turtle inland," said Mike James, a biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada who has studied leatherbacks, including those seen around the coast of Cape Breton, for 20 years at the Dartmouth-based Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

"[It's] particularly curious given not only the fact that it's February, but also that it pushed up so far into Cape Breton on its way through the Bras d'Or Lake," he told the CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton.

The 290-kilogram carcass was sent to a lab in Charlottetown for analysis. (Sue MacLean/Facebook)

James thinks the turtle may have followed jellyfish — the species' primary food source — from the Atlantic coast into the inland sea system and become trapped in an inlet.

He said there's a lot to be learned from the necropsy.

"In this case, we have the full specimen right there up on the shoreline," he said. "So this is pretty exciting for us — not only because the animal has now been collected, so we can study it further, but we can also hopefully get a good understanding of its body condition at the time that it died, which might tell us how long it might have been in the Bras d'Or Lake."

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton and Krystalle Ramlakhan