DEKAMER’s director, Professor Yakup Kaska, from Turkey’s Pamukkale University in Denizli, recently announced a remarkable world first: working with a team of scientists and cutting edge technology, he and his team have fitted a 3D prosthetic jaw to an injured loggerhead sea turtle. During a telephone conversation with Fethiye Times, he explained how the unique procedure was planned, finally took place and the extraordinary progress the convalescing sea turtle is now making.

AKUT to the rescue

AKUT (Turkey’s Search and Rescue Association) is usually in the news for rescues humans but on this occasion one of their teams brought a badly injured male Caretta caretta to the Centre for Sea Turtle Rescue, Research and Rehabilitation (DEKAMER), part of Denizli’s Pamukkale University in Iztuzu, Dalyan. The loggerhead sea turtle, which was missing its lower jaw, was named AKUT-3 as it is the third such sea turtle that they rescued.

Loggerhead Turtle by Tahsin Ceylan
Loggerhead Turtle by Tahsin Ceylan

First procedure of its kind

3D prosthetic jaw given to injured sea turtle by DEAKMER
3D prosthetic jaw fitted to injured sea turtle by DEAKMER

The prognosis for AKUT-3 was not looking good. The Caretta caretta would have to remain in captivity and be fed by hand for the rest of its life and sea turtles can live for many years. Speaking with FT last week, Prof. Dr. Yakup Kaska, Director of the Centre, explained how he and his colleagues thought that there could be a chance for AKUT-3, if only they could find a way to carry out a very remarkable operation that had never been tried before:

This loggerhead sea turtle had been badly injured, probably due to being struck by a boat’s propellor and as a result he couldn’t feed himself. I didn’t want to give up on him and began to think of some rather different solutions. Discussing what could be done with Doğan Sözbilen, from the Advanced Vocational School in Acıpayam, we thought that maybe an alternative treatment like 3D technology could be the answer. A prosthetic jaw could help Akut-3 to feed himself again and even return to his natural habitat. We felt very optimistic that this could work and started work immediately. We consulted with experts, Kuntay Aktaş and Murat Eğri, from BTechinnovation and also investigated the practical and financial aspects and how to find sponsors. Finally, with everything in place, we decided that we could go ahead with the operation. Hopefully, in the future with procedures like this we be able help with similarly wounded sea turtles throughout the world.”

AKUT-3 is on the mend

Professor Kaska described that, after a long struggle, they were finally able to have the completed prosthetic jaw delivered to DEKAMER by plane:

Just over three weeks ago we performed the operation at DEKAMER. It was a complicated procedure as  it involved fitting the prosthetic jawbone and structural flaps to the Caretta caretta but I’m pleased to say that while Akut-3 is still receiving treatment, he is making remarkable progress. It will certainly take time for his body to adjust to the titanium prosthesis but once this is achieved, there will be a long-term rehabilitation period during which AKUT-3 will learn how to use his new jaw. He is now eating well and if all goes according to plan he will eventually be able to return to his natural habitat. His experience will serve as an example for other cases of seriously wounded sea turtles and other species that would not otherwise have the chance to return to the wild.”

Loggerhead sea turtle hatchling: courtesy of Tahsin Ceylan
Loggerhead sea turtle hatchling: courtesy of Tahsin Ceylan

Dangers of propellor strike

Loggerheads have hard carapaces (shells) but even so they are unable to withstand the strike of a boat or the cut of a powerful propeller. Sea turtles that stay close to the sea surface to bask, mate or breathe are particularly vulnerable. Recreational boating, jet skis in tourism areas and further out to sea, shipping, are by far the worst culprits, causing devastating injuries from which many sea turtles don’t survive. But some do and every year an increasing number of sea turtles with propeller and collision injuries are being brought to DEKAMER for treatment.

With DEKAMER’s compassionate, imaginative and dynamic approach to the rehabilitation of injured sea turtles there is now a greater chance, not only this endangered species to survive, but also return to their natural habitat.