The clinical signs (what we call symptoms) of URTD in gopher tortoises include nasal discharge (runny nose), ocular discharge (wet eyes), swollen eyelids, sealed eyelids, and conjunctivitis (reddening of the third eyelid at the inner corner of the eye). Severely ill tortoises may also become lethargic, may try to bask when it is too cold, or may barely move despite what is going on around them. It’s important to note that overheated or stressed tortoises can froth at the mouth, and this facial moistness is sometimes mistaken as a sign of URTD. Additionally, wary and otherwise healthy tortoises may pull their legs in, hiss, and refuse to move, however; this has nothing to do with URTD.
There is currently no cure for URTD, but there is a blood test that can determine if a gopher tortoise has been exposed to mycoplasma. The limitation of this test is that it does not tell whether a tortoise is infected (i.e., has the specific bacteria in the nasal passages) at the time of the test. Another test that involves flushing the nasal passages is necessary to tell if the tortoise is infected, but this test is not readily available and can be compromised by fungi growing in the culture.
Although tortoise researchers have only known about this disease since the late 1980s, the causal pathogen likely evolved with gopher tortoises and has therefore been around for a very long time. Exposed tortoises have been found in many parts of Florida and in other states within the gopher tortoise’s range in the southeastern U.S. In Florida, several large tortoise die-offs are thought to have been caused by URTD. 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. Habitat quality, especially good nutrition in the form of abundant, low-growing forage plants, may be a key in determining which populations can withstand this disease.
Another major concern stems from the permitted relocation of gopher tortoises from development sites 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 the clinical signs can be intermittent (i.e., a tortoise may have a runny nose one day and look fine several days later).
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 occur. If you want to help a tortoise that is crossing a road, move it in the direction it is heading, but keep it in the same location and be aware of your own safety. If you see an ill tortoise in a wild habitat or an urban area, contact the nearest FWC office to provide location information.
The FWC, its partners, and communities across Florida are helping to ensure the long-term survival of this species by implementing a number of conservation actions, including disease research and education, outlined in the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan.