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Researchers use 'fake eggs' to spy on sea turtle hatchlings

A gloved hand reaches down to touch eggs
Researchers place the Turtle Sense sensor disguised as an egg within a sea turtle nest. The attached cable carries motion data to a nearby communication tower. (Photo: Courtesy Erin Clabough)

From about May to October each year, sea turtles nest into the North Carolina sand along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks.

Loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys and other vulnerable species lay their eggs until hatchlings emerge and scramble into the ocean later in the season.

The National Park Service closely observes the nests for evidence of hatching, so officials can shut down parts of the beach when baby turtles make their journey into the waves.

But the monitoring is dependent on time-consuming visual checks by humans.

A research team, including the University of Virginia, wants to use technology to improve the process. The group recently published its research in the scientific journal PLOS One

Their solution: biological subterfuge. Small sensors disguised as eggs are placed into a sea turtle’s nest.

The fake eggs detect movement, which can alert officials when the babies are likely to hatch.

“The beauty of the system is really that we can continually, in real-time, monitor,” said UVA associate professor Erin Clabough, one of the paper’s authors.

Clabough has spent many summers with her family on Cape Hatteras.

During one of them several years ago, she ran into someone on the beach who had also lived in Charlottesville — and they got to chatting. It was Eric Kaplan, who runs the nonprofit Hatteras Island Ocean Center. Eventually, they teamed up for the fake egg project, along with an open-source engineering organization called Nerds Without Border.

The group honed and deployed the fake eggs along the Hatteras shoreline for several years during the past decade.

The small, rectangular device — named Turtle Sense — is sealed in a fake egg the size of a pingpong ball.

The researchers then place it in the middle of a nest’s existing eggs, rebury the nest and dig a trench to lay a connected cable. 

As hatching time nears, they then install a nearby communication tower within PVC pipe to receive real-time motion data.

“We figured out relatively quickly that by looking at the pattern of motion in the nest, we would be able to predict with some pretty good accuracy when the nest would hatch,” Kaplan said.

The researchers aimed in part to ease decision-making for local officials, who have to balance the needs of the turtles, and local beachgoers and tourists.

“Historically, there's been conflict, on Hatteras Island in particular, with multiple entities who all have a vested interest in the beach and use of the beach,” Clabough said.

They collaborated with the National Park Service, which runs the Cape Hatteras seashore and makes decisions on beach closures.

David Hallac, superintendent of National Parks of Eastern North Carolina, said balancing human and wildlife visitors can be a challenge, but the service is currently content with its way of doing so.

Officials send out biological technicians every day during the monthslong nesting season to look for dips in the sand where the creatures lay eggs. 

They cover about 75 miles of beach, Hallac said, and are able to determine where any new nests popped up overnight.

The technicians often partially excavate the nests to take eggs for DNA analysis. They also put up barriers to prevent beachgoers from trampling the nests.

Hallac said it usually takes about 55 days for the turtles to hatch. Thousands of hatchlings emerge each year, though they don’t all make it to the water.

NPS doesn’t have plans to buy the Turtle Sense technology right now. But Hallac said he’s impressed with the project and glad to be a partner.

“I also think that there’s great value in the research,” he said.

Kaplan — who has a home in Frisco, North Carolina — hopes to eventually convince the service to invest in the technology for Hatteras.

But Turtle Sense can be used anywhere turtles hatch. The research team even did some testing with Olive ridley turtles in Costa Rica, alongside a documentarian who wanted footage inside the nests.

“We don't want to lose sea turtles. They're an important part of the ecosystem,” Kaplan said. “So, anything we can do to help increase the likelihood of hatchlings turning into adults is a good thing to do. And this is a pretty easy thing to do.”

Read the original story on WHRO's website.