SAN SALVADOR - Hundreds of sea turtles are washing up dead on the beaches of Central America and scientists don't know why.
One hypothesis is that the killer is a potent neurotoxin that can be produced by algae during red tides, which are large accumulations of algae that turn sea water red or brown.
What puzzles scientists is the fact that red tides have come and gone before without taking such a deadly toll on turtles.
Making things worse, some of the turtles dying are endangered species.
In El Salvador, for instance, from late September to the middle of October, 114 sea turtles were discovered dead on Pacific coast beaches, according to the environment ministry.
They were black turtles (Chelonia agassizii), Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) and ones that are a cross between the two.
Scientists throughout Central America are alarmed, and the only laboratory that specializes in these creatures is taking tissue and organ samples to figure out what is going on.
A Central American phenomenon
The death toll elsewhere is high - 115 so far this year in Guatemala, 280 in Costa Rica and an undisclosed number in Nicaragua. Another 200 died in late 2012 in Panama.
And in Nicaragua there is yet another problem: turtles showed up weeks late, at the end of September, to crawl up onto the beach and lay their eggs.
"Some say it could be due to climate change, sea currents or the techniques used by fishermen," said biologist Ivan Ramirez of the Foundation for the Sustainable Development of Nicaragua (Fundenic).
The head of wildlife and ecosystems at the Salvadoran environment ministry, Nestor Herrera, said the strongest hypothesis over the death of the turtles is that they were killed by saxitoxin - which affects the nervous system and can be produced by a red tide.
In one area of El Salvador's coast, dogs that started eating dead turtles stopped breathing and died almost instantly.