Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD)
Signs of URTD in a gopher tortoises may include runny nose, watery eyes, swollen or sealed eyelids, and a slight reddening in the inner corner of the eye. Severely ill tortoises may be lethargic, barely move despite what is going on around them, and baske when it's too cold. It’s important to note that overheated or stressed tortoises can froth at the mouth, and this froth is sometimes mistaken as a sign of URTD. Additionally, healthy tortoises may pull their legs in, hiss, and refuse to move, but this has nothing to do with URTD.
There is no cure for URTD, but there is a blood test that can determine if a gopher tortoise has ever been exposed to Mycoplasma. The blood test does not tell whether a tortoise is currently infected. To determine that, the nasal passages must be flushed and a sample collected and grown in the laboratory, but such testing is not readily available and can be compromised by fungal contamination.
Tortoise researchers have known about URTD since the late 1980s and believe Mycoplasmabacteria likely evolved with gopher tortoises. In many parts of Florida and other states within the gopher tortoise’s range in the southeastern U.S., gopher tortoises test positive for Mycoplasma but not all show signs of the disease. Despite decades of research, biologists really don’t understand why some tortoises test positive for exposure and live for years, while others become ill and die. In Florida, several large tortoise die-offs are thought to have been caused by URTD. Habitat quality, especially good nutrition in the form of abundant, low-growing forage plants, may be key in determining which populations can withstand this disease.
Another major concern stems from the permitted relocation of gopher tortoises from areas undergoing development to approved recipient sites. A health examination is required before relocating these tortoises, and moving sick tortoises is not permitted; however, the disease may still be transmitted because signs of URTD can be intermittent --a tortoise that had a runny nose last week may look fine this week.
What you can do
Gopher tortoises are a threatened species and are protected by law in Florida. It is illegal to relocate or move them from their home area without a FWC permit. The best way to help minimize the risk of spreading disease into other populations is to leave tortoises where they are. If you want to help a tortoise that is crossing a road, move it in the direction it is heading, and when it is safely off the road, leave it. Report information to FWC if you encounter a sick, injured or dead tortoise.
The FWC, its partners, and communities across Florida are helping to ensure the long-term survival of gopher tortoises through several conservation actions, including disease research and education, outlined in the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan.