Maternal transfer and sublethal immune system effects of brevetoxin exposure in nesting loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) from western Florida

Justin R. Perrault, Mote Marine Laboratory
Katherine D. Bauman, Middlebury College
Taylor M. Greenan, University of North Florida
Patricia C. Blum, Mote Marine Laboratory
Michael S. Henry, Mote Marine Laboratory
Catherine J. Walsh, Mote Marine Laboratory


Blooms of Karenia brevis (also called red tides) occur almost annually in the Gulf of Mexico. The health effects of the neurotoxins (i.e., brevetoxins) produced by this toxic dinoflagellate on marine turtles are poorly understood. Florida's Gulf Coast represents an important foraging and nesting area for a number of marine turtle species. Most studies investigating brevetoxin exposure in marine turtles thus far focus on dead and/or stranded individuals and rarely examine the effects in apparently “healthy” free-ranging individuals. From May–July 2014, one year after the last red tide bloom, we collected blood from nesting loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) on Casey Key, Florida USA. These organisms show both strong nesting and foraging site fidelity. The plasma was analyzed for brevetoxin concentrations in addition to a number of health and immune-related parameters in an effort to establish sublethal effects of this toxin. Lastly, from July–September 2014, we collected unhatched eggs and liver and yolk sacs from dead-in-nest hatchlings from nests laid by the sampled females and tested these samples for brevetoxin concentrations to determine maternal transfer and effects on reproductive success. Using a competitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), all plasma samples from nesting females tested positive for brevetoxin (reported as ng brevetoxin-3[PbTx-3] equivalents [eq]/mL) exposure (2.1–26.7 ng PbTx-3 eq/mL). Additionally, 100% of livers (1.4–13.3 ng PbTx-3 eq/mL) and yolk sacs (1.7–6.6 ng PbTx-3 eq/mL) from dead-in-nest hatchlings and 70% of eggs (<1.0–24.4 ng PbTx-3 eq/mL) tested positive for brevetoxin exposure with the ELISA. We found that plasma brevetoxin concentrations determined by an ELISA in nesting females positively correlated with gamma-globulins, indicating a potential for immunomodulation as a result of brevetoxin exposure. While the sample sizes were small, we also found that plasma brevetoxin concentrations determined by an ELISA in nesting females significantly correlated with liver brevetoxin concentrations of dead-in-nest hatchlings and that brevetoxins could be related to a decreased reproductive success in this species. This study suggests that brevetoxins can still elicit negative effects on marine life long after a bloom has dissipated. These results improve our understanding of maternal transfer and sublethal effects of brevetoxin exposure in marine turtles.