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Saving Sea Turtles With High-Tech Sensors

The National Park Service undertook an experiment this summer on the coast of North Carolina. They put sensors in the nests of endangered sea turtles to find out when baby turtles hatched and headed to the sea. The goal was to cut down on the number of days the beach had to close to protect the turtles. Here & Now’s tech partner, IEEE Spectrum, sent David Schneider there when the sensors were installed. He recently returned to find out how it all turned out.

Britta Muiznicks is a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service. We’re on a slender barrier island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where Muiznicks and her colleagues have been using sensors that measure motion and temperature in an attempt to predict when baby sea turtles will emerge from their nest and scuttle off into the sea.

“We’re at nest number 47, which according to the data that’s being collected by the sensors, is in the process of hatching,” Muiznicks says.

Samuel Wantman, founder of the all-volunteer group “Nerds Without Borders,” which is doing the technical development for this project, says they’re calling the project “Turtle Sense.”

“The smart sensor gets placed inside a nest when the nest is first found by park service employees,” Wantman explains. “Once a day, it sends out a report over the cellphone network on what’s been happening.”

“Emerging technologies have a lot of promise, not only to help protect the turtles, but also to allow greater access to areas that are sometimes closed.”– Mark Dowdle

The hope was that these measurements would provide enough information about hatching times to help park rangers protect these endangered animals while keeping the beaches accessible to the people who live and visit here — people who are often angry when they discover that they can’t get to their favorite fishing spot for weeks on end because the beach has been closed to protect a turtle nest.

Nobody was sure this strategy would work, but it seemed worth a try.

“We put in the first one, and we’re watching every day, and all of a sudden there was like this burst of activity,” Wantman explains. “I sent an email to Britta and said, ‘Something’s happening; something’s happening.’ And sure enough, she sent me an email back, I think it was a day or two later, that said, ‘They hatched.'”

And that wasn’t just a one-off success. The group’s batting average for the 10 nests that have shown activity so far this year is close to 100 percent. Park Service officials at the highest levels are taking notice, including Mark Dowdle, Deputy Superintendent for Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“Some of the results have surprised, I think, everyone, in the sense that they have been right on the money with what the technology is telling us about an impending turtle hatch,” Dowdle says.

As a result, officials here are planning to expand the Turtle Sense monitoring in hopes that at some point in the near future it will allow them to let people use the beaches around a nest for perhaps all but a few days at hatching time.

“This year the project has really proven itself,” Dowdle says. “Emerging technologies have a lot of promise, not only to help protect the turtles, but also to allow greater access to areas that are sometimes closed.”

It’ll no doubt take a while to refine the equipment and revise wildlife management protocols. But it seems clear enough that the National Park Service will soon have a powerful new tool to help protect sea turtles.



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David Schneider

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