A breakthrough: experts say virus is the cause of the Bellinger turtles' death

Scientists at the DPI Elizabeth MacArthur Agricultural Institute have recently made a significant breakthrough and detected a new virus, the cause of a mystery illness that killed more than 350 rare Bellinger River Snapping Turtles.

A virus has decimated the Bellinger River's snapping turtle population

A virus has decimated the Bellinger River's snapping turtle population

The discovery brings the NSW Department of Primary Industries is one step closer in identifying the cause of the virus, which struck the region earlier this year.

Member for Oxley, Mel Pavey, has commended the innovative research led by virologist Dr Peter Kirkland at EMAI, as part of the multi-agency emergency response.

“Since February when the first affected turtles were found dead, DPI has been working to determine the cause of these devastating mortalities in the turtles,” Ms Pavey said.

“This work may now be critical to the survival of this species in their natural habitat. Dr Kirkland and his team have made a groundbreaking discovery to identify this virus.” Ms Pavey said.

Dr Kirkland says the virus was discovered after other potential causes had been eliminated.

“Initial testing by a number of Australian laboratories for a wide range of infections and toxic agents was undertaken with no confirmed diagnosis, however, based on water sampling, contamination from pesticides or hydrocarbons was able to be ruled out early on,” Dr Kirkland said.

“Scientists worked methodically to hone in on the pathogen that was causing such devastating symptoms and the fact that all turtles presented with the same clinical and pathological signs suggested a single causative agent was responsible.

“All affected turtles died despite extensive attempts to treat and save them.”

“There is no evidence that this virus affects other animals or people. Other turtle species in this river system appear healthy.”

This finding will now hopefully allow other knowledge to be gained which will help save the species in the future. Further work will be done in Spring to assess if the disease is still present in any remaining turtles in the river.

The total response has involved NSW Department of Primary Industries, the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Regional Operations Group and Heritage Division (ROGHD), Local Land Services (LLS), the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), NSW Health, the Bellingen Shire Council, Wildlife Health Australia, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, university researchers and private veterinarians.

DPI Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Ian Roth said “Now that we know that the cause is most likely a virus it reinforces the message not to handle any turtles in the area, as this could spread the virus,” said Dr Roth.

“Other procedures such as washing down canoes and boats after leaving the water should also be followed.”