Researchers Build Tiny Treadmills To Test The Stamina Of Turtle Hatchlings

#TeamTurtle MenCre/Shutterstock

Let’s be honest, 2017 gave science a bit of a battering and what we all need now, as the year winds down, is a nice, cute story. So here's one about tiny turtles on tiny treadmills. Yep, for science!

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University studying the physiological effects on disoriented sea turtle hatchlings of taking extended time to crawl to the ocean decided to test their stamina by building tiny treadmills. Their results are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

In the first 24 hours of its life, if everything goes to plan, a tiny sea turtle will complete an Ironman-esque feat of sprinting across the sand from its nest and launching itself into the sea. It's also when the hatchlings are most vulnerable to being picked off by predators, so getting to the safety of the water as fast as possible is key. However, that doesn’t always happen.

Scientists think that hatchlings instinctively know which direction the water is because they are looking for the brightest low horizon, but artificial light pollution in urban coastal areas is messing with their orientation and it can take them hours, not minutes, to get there, expending huge amounts of energy on the way. In these areas, hatchlings have about a 50 percent chance of successfully making it to the sea.

“What prompted our study was the desire to understand what happens to these hatchlings after they spend hours crawling on the beach because they are disoriented,” explained lead author Sarah L. Milton. “We wanted to know if they would even be able to swim after crawling 500 meters [1600 feet] or more, which could take them as long as seven hours to complete.”

C’mon tiny turtle, you can do it! Look at those little flippers go <3 

To do this, the researchers collected 150 hatchlings from both loggerhead and green turtle nests (they released them back immediately afterward) to study the effects of an extended crawl distance, and whether this energy consumption affects their first swim performance.

So they built them tiny treadmills. After their initial workout, the turtles’ swimming performance was measured by placing them in a tank in a tiny turtle swimsuit that measured their oxygen consumption, breathing, and stroke rates.

Just a turtle wearing a swimsuit, doing its thing. Florida Atlantic University

To verify that their lab testing was a good approximation of disorientation in the wild, Milton and her graduate student Karen Pankaew went into the field and recorded how far wild hatchlings crawled, how long it took, and how often they rested.  

“We were completely surprised by the results of this study,” said Milton. “We were expecting that the hatchlings would be really tired from the extended crawling and that they would not be able to swim well. It turned out not to be the case and that they are in fact crawling machines. They crawl and rest, crawl and rest and that’s why they weren’t too tired to swim.”

So, go forth tiny crawling machines and do us proud. We're going to need some happy science stories in 2018. 


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