What are we studying? | Why are we studying? | What are we finding? | What does it mean? | Where can I read more?

What are we studying?

We are studying sea turtles in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Vieques is a small island off the southeast coast of the main island of Puerto Rico at the interface of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. There, we study the leatherback, green and hawksbill sea turtles gathering baseline data about the population and investigating how environmental toxicants may be impacting their population. We are also investigating the invasive lionfish which inhabit the waters surrounding Vieques and many other locations in Puerto Rico and the United States. These fish pose a threat to the native coral and fish, but also serve as a useful indicator of pollution. In the course of our work in Vieques, we are also involved in several education and community outreach programs in order to promote scientific research and involve the local community in an educational scientific research program.

Why are we studying it?

Our efforts in Vieques are two-fold. For one, it is an excellent opportunity to engage with the public in scientific research. Vieques has no local college or university and our work there allows us to interact with local kids to encourage and increase their interest in science.  Secondly, Vieques has a unique history that created an unusual interaction between ecology and toxicology. For more than 40 years, half of the island of Vieques was used as a site for bombing and munitions training by the Unites States Navy. In 2003, the Navy left Vieques and the former military training land was converted to a wildlife reserve and a clean-up process was begun. Thus, in Vieques one has the interaction of a wildlife reserve with a long history of metal and munitions exposure. Our work allows us to consider metal pollution and DNA damage in the sea turtles that nest on the beaches and the lionfish that recently moved into the area.


What are we finding?

Our assessment of metals and DNA damage in the sea turtles is still underway and we do not have data to report. However, we have found in an initial study of hawksbill sea turtle cell lines that both particulate and soluble forms of chromium (VI) induce cell death and damage chromosomes in hawksbill skin cells. These outcomes support the possibility that chromium may cause reproductive and developmental issues in the turtles and may cause turtle lung cancer.


What does it mean?

Our data support the suggestion that chromium (VI) poses a potential health risk to turtles who are exposed to it through either inhalation of chromium (VI) or other routes such as diet. Furthermore, because our data indicate that chromium (VI) damages chromosomes, chromium exposure may contribute to the development of cancer, developmental abnormalities and failure to reproduce.


Where can I read more?
  • Wise, S.S., Xie, H., Fukuda, T., Thompson, W.D. and Wise, Sr., J.P. Hexavalent Chromium Is Cytotoxic and Genotoxic to Hawksbill Sea Turtle Cells. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 279: 113–118, 2014. PMID: 24952338. PMCID: PMC4134996.
  • Young, J.L., Wise, S.S., Xie, H., Zhu, C., Fukuda, T., and Wise, Sr., J.P. Comparative Cytotoxicity and Genotoxicity of Soluble and Particulate Hexavalent Chromium in Human and Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate) Skin Cells. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part C, 178 145–155, 2015. PMID: 26440299. PMCID: PMC4669981.