Pollution may be the cause of a peculiar form of herpes currently plaguing sea turtles living near the Great Barrier Reef. Researchers at James Cook University in Australia have been mapping the outbreak and found a hotspot in a small part of Cockle Bay frequented by tourists. There, more than half of the turtles exhibit symptoms of the viral disease, while it is much more rare in other parts of the Reef. Researchers think the high number of cases is linked to contamination from tourist activity.

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Outside of the tourist destination, less than 10 percent of the bay’s turtle population has been infected with the disease, according to researchers. The substantial difference in the number of cases has led scientists to suggest that human activity—specifically, pollution—is to blame for the illness. Researchers suspect that pollution damages the turtles’ immune system and causes an otherwise dormant disease to become life-threatening. The turtle-specific variety of the herpes disease causes fibropapillomatosis, a condition that causes tumors to grow on the outside of the body. Because of the size and number of tumors, turtles can lose mobility as well as sight, impeding their survival.

Related: Green sea turtles are no longer endangered in Florida and Mexico

While this outbreak is under investigation in Australia, others have cropped up elsewhere. New Scientist reports that, last year in the Florida Keys, a record number of turtles were found with the same tumors. Many healthy turtles carry the disease, but the tumorous growths are actually quite rare. Since the cases in Florida were near a popular tourist destination, similar to Australia’s Cockle Bay, the evidence is mounting that people could, inadvertently and without realizing, be threatening delicate sea turtle populations around the world.

To further pinpoint the relationship, researchers at James Cook University will test the bay water for specific contaminants and look for more evidence to explain why the turtles are suffering so much from a disease that is typically harmless.

Via The Verge

Images via Karina Jones/James Cook University