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Mycoplasmosis and upper respiratory tract disease of tortoises: a review and update

September 10, 2014

Tortoise mycoplasmosis is one of the most extensively characterized infectious diseases of chelonians. A 1989 outbreak of upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) in free-ranging Agassiz's desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) brought together an investigative team of researchers, diagnosticians, pathologists, immunologists and clinicians from multiple institutions and agencies. Electron microscopic studies of affected tortoises revealed a microorganism in close association with the nasal mucosa that subsequently was identified as a new species, Mycoplasma agassizii. Over the next 24 years, a second causative agent, Mycoplasma testudineum, was discovered, the geographic distribution and host range of tortoise mycoplasmosis were expanded, diagnostic tests were developed and refined for antibody and pathogen detection, transmission studies confirmed the pathogenicity of the original M. agassizii isolate, clinical (and subclinical) disease and laboratory abnormalities were characterized, many extrinsic and predisposing factors were found to play a role in morbidity and mortality associated with mycoplasmal infection, and social behavior was implicated in disease transmission.

The translation of scientific research into management decisions has sometimes led to undesirable outcomes, such as euthanasia of clinically healthy tortoises. In this article, we review and assess current research on tortoise mycoplasmosis, arguably the most important chronic infectious disease of wild and captive North American and European tortoises, and update the implications for management and conservation of tortoises in the wild.

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