Kenneth Worthy Ph.D.

The Green Mind

Sensing Turtles

Can nerds and their technology bring humans and turtles closer?

Posted Sep 26, 2014

One of nature’s most endearing spectacles occurs when 100–150 sea turtle hatchlings dig themselves out from below the sand en mass. After they “boil” out of their beach nest, they toddle toward the waves and plow in fearlessly, their tiny flippers flopping to and fro.

The US Endangered Species Act protects the vulnerable hatchlings, so biologists and National Park Service employees fence off a lane between known nests and the ocean, to shield the infant turtles on their short journey. The lanes are kept blocked for as long as six weeks (usually in the summer!), the period during which a nest may hatch. This long protection period often creates conflicts, some even resulting in lawsuits, with people wanting to use the beach unfettered for fishing or other recreational uses.

Enter Nerds

This problem has caught the attention of engineers who realized that if they could somehow predict when a boil might occur, the fencing-off period could be much shorter, perhaps a few days, thus minimizing contention between beach use and turtle protection. Some people might question whether human access to the beaches even needs to be accommodated given the delicate state of sea turtle populations worldwide, which have to contend with beach habitat loss, toxic plastic bits floating in the oceans and entering their food, and deadly entanglement with fishing nets and lines. The turtles would seem to be the underdog in this story. But the reality is people use beaches and one of the reasons these places are protected at all and remain accessible is recreation and aesthetic values.

So the pragmatic approach of Turtle Sense makes a lot of sense indeed. It’s a project of a new organization, Nerds-Without-Borders, a group of engineers, writers, website managers, and others volunteering their energy and talents to work for the greater common good of humanity and nature together. Turtle Sense is designing and constructing low-cost systems that use an electronic sensor inserted into nests to detect when any agitation starts to occur. The system communicates movement in the nest over a data network to Park Service officials to alert them of an impending boil. Several prototype sets of the equipment are currently being tested at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, and they seem to be accurately detecting and communicating movements of the eggs. When the systems are judged reliable enough, officials will be able to put up the protected lanes only when needed.

Connections and Building Beaches

These days, technology usually seems to disconnect people from the natural world, with ruinous results for nature, as I have written here and here. We’re more involved with our cars, cellphones, laptops, Facebook accounts, and flat panel TVs than with the natural world that all those things depend on.

By contrast Turtle Sense is using technology to forge connections. Technologists are connected to nature by working for the welfare of fragile turtle populations, and they’re connected to each other by working together on these projects that fuel their passions. In the process they also forge bonds with the non-technical people with whom they collaborate—in this case National Park Service rangers and biologists. Animosity toward turtles (because of their protected areas) from other users of the beach is minimized. And people become better connected to turtles when the timing of boils can be predicted and these wondrous events can thus become an occasion for ecotourism.

As people gain closer contact with nature and turtles, they learn ever more about the interconnectedness of nature and the surprising roles different species play. In preparing to write this piece, I learned that turtle nesting nourishes beaches.[1] The turtles leave behind nutrients because some eggs or even entire nests never hatch, and even when they do, some hatchlings or shells remain behind.

As the remains of sea turtle nests decay, they fertilize the sands just enough for sea grasses and other vegetation to grow. The vegetation helps to hold the sand in place, creating dunes, which bolster the shore against sea-level rise from climate change. Without the plants, a lot of the beach would be swept away. So in a real sense, the turtles help create the beaches enjoyed by humans. It only seems fitting that people, the Nerds-Without-Borders, should give them some help.

The story is similar to that of salmon, who transport nutrients from the oceans to forests. They eat and grow at sea and return upstream in rivers to spawn, where they then die, releasing their nutrients directly into the waters. Or they’re eaten by bears, who then urinate and defecate in the woods, fertilizing trees and other plants. Scientists have traced Nitrogen isotopes in trees and other forest vegetation directly to the ocean.[2]

To become endeared to the plight of sea turtles, there’s nothing like seeing a boil and watching the hatchlings struggle to the sea, now better protected on their journey by people. That’s nature connection at its best.

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1. S.S. Bouchard and K.A. Bjorndal. 2000. Sea turtles as biological transporters of nutrients and energy from marine to terrestrial ecosystems. Ecology 81:2305-2313. Vander Zanden, H.B., K.A. Bjorndal, P.W. Inglett and A.B. Bolten.  2012.  Marine-derived nutrients from green turtle nests subsidize terrestrial beach ecosystems. Biotropica 44:294-301. Hannan, L. B., J. D. Roth, L. M. Ehrhart, and J. F. Weishampel. 2007. Dune vegetation fertilization by nesting sea turtles. Ecology 88:1053–1058.

2. Tom Reimchen, “Salmon Nutrients, nitrogen isotopes, and coastal forests.” Ecoforestry, Fall, 2001.