Histologic lesions incidental to the cause of death were observed in the adrenal glands of 17 subadult and adult leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) found dead or moribund on or near shore in North America. Round bodies, 250–300 μm in diameter composed of an outer capsule and large multinucleated cells surrounding a central mass of acellular material were distributed throughout the affected glands. Protozoal etiology was suspected based on some resemblance to coccidia; however, features diagnostic for coccidial infection were lacking in all but one case, which had a focal area of adrenalitis containing zoites. A novel eucoccidian partial 18S rRNA genetic sequence was consistently detected in adrenal glands with lesions. With the use of quantitative PCR, a specific area of the V4 region of the coccidian 18S gene was quantified in affected adrenal glands and correlated significantly with density of the histologic lesions. A second distinct, but closely related, 18S sequence was also amplified from the adrenal gland of one turtle and from a fecal sample containing unsporulated coccidian oocysts. The two 18S sequences identified from leatherback sea turtles form a clade within the family Eimeriidae. Further investigation is required to understand better the morphology of the life stages, life cycle, and potential effects of this coccidian parasite on adrenal function.
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Vol. 52 • No. 4