Evaluating internal exposure of sea turtles as model species for identifying regional chemical threats in nearshore habitats of the Great Barrier Reef

Caroline Gaus*, C.A. Villa, Gülsah Dogruer, Amy Heffernan, Soumini Vijayasarathy, Chun Yin Lin, Mark Flint, Christine Madden Hof, Ian Bell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Marine megafauna that forage in proximity to land can be exposed to a diverse mixture of chemicals that - individually or combined - have the potential to affect their health. Characterizing such complex exposure and examining associations with health still poses considerable challenges. The present study summarizes the development and application of novel approaches to identifying chemical hazards and their potential impacts on the health of coastal wildlife, using green sea turtles as model species. We used an epidemiological study approach to collect blood and keratinized scute samples from free-ranging turtles foraging in nearshore areas and an offshore control site. These were analyzed using a combination of non-targeted, effect-based and multi-chemical analytical screening approaches to assess internal exposure to a wide range of chemicals. The screening phase identified a suite of elements (essential and non-essential) as priority for further investigation. Many of these elements are not commonly analyzed in marine wildlife, illustrating that comprehensive screening is important where exposure is unknown or uncertain. In particular, cobalt was present at highly elevated concentrations, in the order of those known to elicit acute effects across other vertebrate species. Several trace elements, including cobalt, were correlated with clinical indicators of impaired turtle health. In addition, biomarkers of oxidative stress (e.g. 3-indolepropionic acid and lipid peroxidation products) identified in the blood of turtles showed significant correlations with clinical health markers (particularly alkaline phosphatase and total bilirubin), as well as with cobalt. To assist interpretation of trace element blood data in the absence of sufficient information on reptile toxicity, we established exposure reference intervals using a healthy control population. In addition, trace element exposure history was investigated by establishing temporal exposure indices using steady-state relationships between blood and scute. Overall, the data provide a strong argument for the notion that trace element exposure is having an impact on the health of coastal sea turtle populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)732-743
Number of pages12
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 25 Mar 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Bioanalytical screening
  • Blood
  • Contaminants
  • Multi-element screening
  • Non-target screening


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