Why Did Scientists Release Dead Sea Turtles into Chesapeake Bay?

June 15, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Dead sea turtle filled with styrofoam "Frankenturtle"
Photo credit: © D. Malmquist/VIMS. A sea turtle carcass filled with styrofoam.

“Frankenturtles” may protect living turtles from harm.

On June 13, researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) released the carcasses of two dead sea turtles — a 15-20-year-old, 150-pound loggerhead that was killed by a boat strike and a younger 70-pound turtle whose cause of death was unknown — into the open waters of Chesapeake Bay.

It’s the latest effort to reduce sea turtle mortality. The researchers aim to pinpoint where the hundreds of dead loggerhead sea turtles that wash up on Chesapeake Bay beaches each summer may have met their demise.

To figure out where the turtles died, the researchers are working backwards. Records of sea turtle stranding locations gathered by the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Team are their starting point. Next, they will build computer models to predict the paths the turtle carcasses took to eventually arrive at their final resting places.

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But one key piece of information is missing from the models. The researchers have no idea how winds and currents might influence the movements of a sea turtles carcass.

Enter the Frankenturtle. Using dead sea turtles provided by the Stranding Response Program, the researchers replaced the inner organs with buoyant Styrofoam, stuck the shells back on with zip ties, and then attached GPS units to track the movements of the Frankenturtles as winds and currents disperse them from their release site.

“It might seem sort of gross, but it’s a good way to reuse a dead turtle that would otherwise be buried,” said researcher David Kaplan in a press release. “And hopefully, the deployment of our two Frankenturtles will ultimately help lower the number of turtle deaths in the future.”

“If our model can accurately simulate how winds and currents act on a dead sea turtle, we should be able to backtrack from a stranding site to the place where the turtle likely died,” said Bianca Santos, a graduate student involved in the research. “By knowing the ‘where,’” she adds, “we can better look at the ‘why.’"

Santos explained that the team actually released three different types of drifters: the two Frankenturtles, two buoyant wooden-Styrofoam turtle models, and a pair of mostly submerged bucket drifters. By observing how the wind differentially affects each of the models, the researchers hope to determine how a wind-driven carcass might deviate from the more predictable current patterns traced by the Bay’s surface waters.

The researchers plan to track the Frankenturtles and other drifters for 3-4 days. The public can now view the motion of the drifters in real-time via the VIMS website.

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