If you see what looks like a dead loggerhead turtle floating around Chesapeake Bay, don’t go near it. It could be a zombie “Frankenturtle” created in a secret laboratory at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to find other dead sea turtles. Is this an experiment to bring about a zombie sea turtle apocalypse? Save that for a movie plot … this experiment is designed to save the endangered creatures by helping to figure out what’s killing them and why.
OK, the laboratory isn’t really secret and neither is the project. Assistant Professor David Kaplan of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and graduate student Bianca Santos recently launched their project to reduce loggerhead turtle deaths by tracking modified sea turtle carcasses as they float around Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, Maryland and other states.
It might seem sort of gross, but it’s a good way to reuse a dead turtle that would otherwise be buried. And hopefully, the deployment of our two Frankenturtles will ultimately help lower the number of turtle deaths in the future.
Dr. Kaplan obtained the dead turtles from the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Program. He and Santos then removed the turtles’ organs, replaced them with Styrofoam, sewed them back up, attached a GPS to their backs and set them adrift. Joining the Frankenturtles were two wooden-Styrofoam turtles and two buoyant buckets. The variety will allow them to see how and where dead turtles might float during various times after dying when their bodies, after sinking to the bottom of the Bay, rise slowly as the gases released by decomposition lift them back to the surface.
Santos says the goal of the project is to reverse-engineer the path that ends with hundreds of dead loggerhead sea turtles washing up on Chesapeake Bay beaches each summer.
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. By knowing the ‘where,’” she adds, “we can better look at the ‘why.’
The “why” list includes entanglement in fishing boat nets, collisions with boats and propellers, eating or getting caught up in plastic trash and sudden fluctuations in water temperature. With 5,000-10,000 threatened loggerhead turtles entering the Bay each summer, preventing the deaths of hundreds is critical.
Will it work? Kaplan and Santos released their zombies in mid-June and are now collecting the data for analysis.
While we wait for their conclusions, discuss among yourselves whether Frankenturtles or Zombie Turtles would be the better name for a band.