KUALA TERENGGANU: The local turtle population is not only threatened by predators and careless human behaviour. Researchers at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu have found a deadly microorganism silently working from inside the nest as well.
In a study spanning about 10 years, a team led by Dr Siti Nordahliawate Mohamed Sidique, senior lecturer of microbiology and plant pathology, found that an aggressive fungus of the Fusarium species has been infecting the eggs, ruining every chance of survival.
“We believe the fungus releases a micro-toxin that attacks the turtle embryo. We’re conducting more research on this,” said Dr Siti.
She said that the soil-borne fungus is a plant pathogen found on decaying leaves and twigs and is more likely to be found in areas closer to dense vegetation.
And because it is soil-borne, eggs at the bottom of the pile or closer to soil is usually infected first before it spreads to the rest of the load.
“A lot of the nests that were highly infected by the fungus tend to be closer to vegetation as some turtles would search for more shady areas to lay their eggs.
“We found that up to 40% of eggs can be infected within 40 days of incubation,” Dr Siti said.
Typically, sea turtles lay around 120 eggs at any one time and it will take up to 70 days before hatchlings emerge.
Infected eggs appear discoloured with light black spots on the shell.
As infection worsens, the fungus would have covered the whole outer shell turning it greyish-black.
Dr Siti and her team also explored other turtle nesting sites in peninsular Malaysia and found that the fungus was present in Melaka and Terengganu.
The fungus presence is not isolated to Malaysia only but has been discovered in other parts of the world.
Dr Siti said European researchers have published papers on the fungus infection which led to the decline in turtle population in Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans but there was a lack of information on the kind of fungus that has been threatening turtle eggs locally until now.
“We did a study and confirmed that this it is the same fungus that those researchers identified,” she said.
Dr Siti said the fungus is also dangerous to humans and can cause allergic reactions and even infections if not handled carefully.
As the team conducts further research into the fungus, they are also finding more efficient ways of separating infected eggs from clean ones to limit the spread of the fungus.