Clinical Experience Shapes Vet's Research

The humpback whale was very sick when it became stranded on a sandbar near Ocracoke Island last spring, and Dr. Craig Harms knew the animal wasn't going to make it back to the open water alive. With a team from NC State's Center for Marine Science and Technology in Morehead City, the associate professor of clinical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) embarked on a mission of mercy. To ensure the euthanasia was humane not only to the whale but also to the gulls and other scavengers that might feed on the carcass, Harms devised a lethal injection protocol using low doses of several drugs that don't leave a toxic residue in the whale's system.

Such clinical experiences—they usually have happier endings than euthanizing an animal—shape much of Harms' research. In addition to handling aquatic animal strandings along the coast, he monitors the health of the fish and marine mammals at North Carolina's three state aquariums and works with a Topsail Island nonprofit group caring for sick and injured sea turtles. "I'm opportunistic," he says. "I collect tissue and blood samples and other data during clinical treatments, and I research things that appear unusual or don't make sense."

During tests on harbor porpoises and bottlenose dolphins, for example, Harms discovered that they carried Bartonella, a bacteria spread by fleas and ticks. He also found a strong association between the microbes and animal strandings. Because biting insects aren't known to feed on aquatic mammals, Harms is working with Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt, a CVM professor of internal medicine and Bartonella expert, to determine the source of the bacteria. "It could be stormwater runoff," Harms says, "or there could be some aquatic cycle or a land-water linkage that we just don't understand yet."

Working with sea turtles led Harms to conduct pharmacological studies to determine the best way to manage pain and inflammation in the reptiles.

Likewise, his work with sea turtles led Harms to conduct pharmacological studies to determine the best way to manage pain and inflammation. He has found that some drugs metabolized in the liver are effective for shorter periods in turtles than in mammals, which he says is surprising considering the reptiles' slower metabolism. "We changed our treatment protocols because of our findings," he says. Now, he hopes that necropsies he and colleagues performed last winter on more than 400 turtles that died off the Florida coast after being stunned by a drop in water temperature will provide him with more data for future clinical use and research. "This gives us a good baseline on otherwise healthy sea turtles," he says. "We can study a lot of things with this information."

 

Dig Deeper:

Agencies providing funding for research cited in this story include:

 

NC State research has determined that certain drugs metabolized in the liver are effective for shorter periods in sea turtles than in mammals.

Dr. Craig Harms conducts clinically-applied research aimed at improving health and welfare of aquatic animals.