Biologist: Desert tortoises have flu-like illness

Biologist: Desert tortoises have flu-like illness

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ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) -- It's cold and flu season on southern Utah's Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, only it's not people who are sick -- it the tortoises.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Ann McLuckie said a recent survey of the animals found a growing number of the desert creatures suffering clinical signs of the disease, including runny noses and loose skin.

"They look despondent and not healthy," McLuckie said.

To learn more about what biologists suspect is an upper respiratory tract disease, reserve officials got funding from the Washington County Commission to pay a veterinary pathologist to conduct necropsies -- animal autopsies -- on up to six sick tortoises. The illness isn't transferable to humans.

"What the (disease) does is similar to what the common cold does to humans only it is more difficult to overcome," said Cameron Rognan, a biologist with the reserve.

The site was created in 1996 to protect the tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species. Since 1990, about 400 tortoises have been located on reserve lands, which include 130 miles of hiking trails that are open to the public.

McLuckie said the disease made a significant appearance on the 62,000-acre reserve in 2002, killing many of the animals. Drought or fire can result in less food for tortoises and make them more susceptible to disease.

The disease appears only to affect adult tortoises and could be transmitted during mating when the normally solitary animals engage in rituals that include touching their bobbing heads.

Once tortoises contract the disease, they have it forever, but symptoms are not manifested when they have enough food and water.

It's like when humans catch a cold, McLuckie said. "If you take plenty of vitamin C and get plenty of sleep it goes away, but if you're under a lot of stress it could get worse," she said.

Only necropsies, which cost $1,500 each, can confirm the disease. A veterinarian pathologist in Auburn, Ala., will perform the procedures.

Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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