I just returned from nine days visiting our two test sites in North Carolina. While there, I got a chance to see baby sea turtles making their way to the ocean and to talk with wildlife managers and biologists. I learned quite a bit from the trip. We went out for several nights to visit a nest where I had predicted a boil using the data from our sensor. The turtles emerged two days later than expected, but that was not surprising considering that the temperature had been cooling down in the prior two weeks, and the previous nests had hatched during warmer periods. The boils often occur between sundown and about 10:00 PM, which is when we usually gave up and went home. This nest ended up boiling a little after midnight.
Nest sitters must wait for the boil in total darkness because lights can confuse any baby turtles that emerge. So there's nothing much to do except talk and enjoy watching and listening to the phosphorescent waves. This gave all of us many hours to talk about our progress so far and to discuss how the data correlates to what is happening underground. I spent much of the time talking with Britta Muiznieks, National Park Service (NPS) biologist and our host at the nest site. She Is the NPS liaison with our project.
The week before, I got a chance to meet staff from the Bald Head Island Conservancy at the southeast tip of North Carolina. While travelling from Bald Head Island to Cape Hatteras, we stopped to meet with Matthew Godfrey, who is the Sea Turtle Program Coordinator at the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. I was very surprised to learn that there was little data about the timing of events in sea turtle nests before a boil. Part of the reason for this is that it is so difficult to study what is happening. Studying sea turtle nests risks invoking the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. If you look in the nest to observe what is going on, you might be having a major effect on what happens. So our apparatus is a welcome addition to tools that biologists can use to understand what is happening inside the nests.
All these biologists are also responsible for managing wildlife, and it was here that our discussions led to several ideas about how we can use our technology for the benefit of Sea Turtles.
At the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the issue has been off-road vehicle management, but at Bald Head Island, like at many other beaches, there are no off-road vehicles on the beach. There the issues are twofold: monitoring the nests for events that could harm the turtles and managing volunteers.
Predators often attack the nests, and high tides and storms can cause overwashes that suffocate the nest. These harmful events are often discovered too long after the fact for wildlife managers to be able to intervene in any effective way. Fortunately, we are able to see these events in our data. Predation appears as a very sharp and intense spike of activity. Overwashes look like a sudden attenuation of the energy readings we get. It is likely that we can create an automated system to recognize these changes in the data and send out e-mail or text alerts to wildlife managers so that immediate action can be taken. For example, one of our nests was washed away by high tides a day or two before a boil was expected. We knew that the eggs had hatched from the activity we saw. What I learned was that turtles still have their yolk sacks attached after they hatch, and it takes a few days for them to fully absorb the remaining nutrients so they have enough energy to make the journey to the ocean and find their first meal. Wildlife managers, knowing that threatening high surf could drown the hatchlings, could have rescued them beforehand and released them later when they were ready. Similar intervention is possible if there is major predation.
Because boil times have been so difficult to predict, volunteer nest sitters could spend two weeks or more monitoring a nest waiting for it to boil. With our technology, we can probably reduce that time to one-to-three days. This means that a single volunteer would be able to monitor several nests during the same time they currently spend monitoring just one nest. So our technology is not only able to help biologists understand what is going on, but it also gives wildlife managers a tool that they can use to help increase the success rate of the nests.
The initial inspiration for our project came from a desire to create a win-win solution to the conflict between those who are responsible for managing wild life and those who want to maintain access to the beaches. We have made significant progress in creating a win-win solution to this problem by successfully predicting boils at almost all of the nests we have looked at, even without knowing exactly what the data means and with little or no previous data to back up our predictions. The chances of this being implemented on a large scale are looking very positive. But the most gratifying part of our journey was discovering so many ways that we might also be improving the survival rate of the baby sea turtles. Win-win-win.