Clabough EBD, Kaplan E, Hermeyer D, Zimmerman T, Chamberlin J, Wantman S (2022) The secret life of baby turtles: A novel system to predict hatchling emergence, detect infertile nests, and remotely monitor sea turtle nest events. PLoS ONE 17(10): e0275088.
Clambering across a narrow strip of beach is perhaps the most terrifying journey in the life of a sea turtle. Especially an endangered one.
New hatchlings, the size of a mouse, emerge from sandy underground nests in the night and in the wee hours of the morning, they head for the surf. Before reaching the water though, they must evade hungry seabirds and poachers, among many other obstacles. These days, they also need to avoid getting disoriented by light pollution. About one in 1,000 to one in 10,000 make it to adulthood.
Image source: Zach Fitzner, Earth.com, 2021
To help hold up unwell populations of sea turtles, turtle conservationists in hotspots around the world camp out at turtle nests around the time when the hatchlings are predicted to emerge, to help shepherd them toward the waves. However, predicting the time at which this will happen is a bit of a guessing game.
So, Dr. Clabough and team decided that there must be a better way. Over the last several years, they developed a sensor, disguised as a turtle egg, that could make this trip a little safer.
How, you ask?
A team of self-described tech nerds decided to find a more accurate way to predict when the turtles would emerge. Since 2013, they began testing tiny sensors inserted in turtle nests at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Turtle nests can lie quietly for two months before budding. The rush often comes in a sudden eruption of baby turtles known as a boil. Today, nest-watchers rely on estimates of how long turtles typically take to hatch. They also keep an eye out for a growing divot in the sand, indicating that the turtles below are digging their way out.
Between 2013 and 2017, the team placed the sensor egg, dubbed TurtleSense, in 74 loggerhead turtle nests along with several green and olive ridley nests, at Cape Hatteras. Then, they watched what happened.
Image source: Turtle Sense, Phase II, 2014
The sensors revealed a clear crusade pattern as the eggs matured. The nest grew fidgety as the turtles pushed their way out of their shells, usually starting 46 to 53 days after the eggs were laid. That effort was followed by a intermission that commonly lasted 1.5 days. Then came the final mad dash to the water, the scientists and inventors reported in October of 2022 in PLOS One.
The device, which costs around $300 per nest, offers a comparatively inexpensive way to zero in on when the hatchlings are likely to head for the water, the scientists wrote. “As an automated system, TurtleSense can accurately predict hatching events and send alerts to wildlife managers and researchers.”
Image Source: Turtle Sense, data from the first report in 2014
The sensors were more accurate than human observers in several ways. They can tell when the eggs in a nest haven’t survived (not all do), so people no longer need to police it. It also turns out that the sand depressions aren’t a terribly accurate way to know when the turtles are about to emerge. These indents were found in only 45% of the nests monitored for the research.
If anyone wants to pick up the egg and run with it, so to speak, Wantman is ready to hand it off. “It would need some serious reengineering,” Wantman said. “But I’d be happy to work with someone to give them what we’ve got.
Image Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2013
Krti is interested in the transmission dynamics of environmental diseases as they relate to climate and anthropogenic stressors. As a Fulbright Scholar, Krti conducted analyses on the responses of dengue fever to climatic stressors off the coast of the Bay of Bengal, in India. Currently, Krti works with Stanford University to understand the role of schistosomiasis in environmental reservoirs, and leads the pursuit of a computational-based based analysis of eelgrass wasting disease dynamics. At Stanford, Krti serves as one of the few trans-disciplinary experts for planetary health topics, via machine learning and computer vision, data science, environmental policy, and science communication. As a STEM innovator and a first-generation woman of color, Krti is proud to be a writer for Oceanbites!