Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review - Fire in the Turtle House: The Green Sea Turtle and the Fate of the Ocean by Osha Gray Davidson

Climate change has already shown impacts not only on the world's temperatures but on ocean acidification, sea level rise, and effects on plant and animal migration behaviors, among others. The Dake Page periodically reviews science-related books.It isn't clear whether the impacts noted in Fire in the Turtle House are related to climate change or some other cause, but it reflects how quickly disruptions can result in catastrophic impacts on wildlife. What follows is a short review of Fire in the Turtle House: The Green Sea Turtle and the Fate of the Ocean by Osha Gray Davidson.

The Turtle House is an area in the narrow channel separating Maui from the neighboring island of Moloka'i. Not surprisingly it is a haven for sea turtles, especially the green sea turtle that the locals call honu. And the honu are dying.

The book follows the search for the cause of rampant spread of the disease called FP, most notably characterized by the growth of tumors on the soft tissues of turtles. First noticed in the 1960s, proliferating in the 70s, and clearly epidemic by the 80s, FP has decimated green turtle populations in Hawai'i as well as in Florida. Davidson visits with the key researchers, examines the different investigations into the cause, and personalizes the scientific struggle to understand. In the end the answers are still uncertain, though viruses are clearly implicated, and dinoflagellate biotoxins, human-caused stresses from pollution and nutrient enrichment, and other factors also may be part of the complex genesis that spreads the disease.

Overall this book is well written. It does seem to veer off on tangents, such as stories about Stellar sea cows from a century before, Pfeisteria-based fish diseases, and other sidetracks that eventually are laced back into the turtle narrative with varying success. On a personal note, it was interesting to see mention of names like Archie Carr and Joanne Burkholder and others familiar to my own marine biology days.

One drawback to the book is that it was published in 2001 and thus is somewhat dated. It would be nice to know where the status of the investigation, and hopefully treatment, of FP stands now. Still, I would recommend this book for those who are interested in learning how science works in the complex real world, and how human factors can surreptitiously drive what appear to be nature impacts.

More science-related book reviews can be read here.