Poachers stealing from turtle nests could find themselves with egg on their face as decoy eggs are being deployed to track down thieves. A recent study published in the journal Current Biology looked into the efficiency of using 3D-printed, GPS-enabled “turtle eggs” to trick poachers into leading authorities right to their door, gathering key evidence needed to expose the illegal trade of turtle products.
The aptly named InvestEggators are the brainchild of the conservation organization Paso Pacifico by one of their scientists, Kim Williams-Guillen. The idea was conceived and designed to tackle the illegal trade of endangered sea turtles in Central America, where the eggs are a hotly sought-after delicacy sold to restaurants and bars across the region. Surprisingly, her inspiration for the idea was the world’s favorite meth dealer.
"In Breaking Bad, the DEA places a GPS tracking device on a tank of chemicals to see who receives the chemicals," she said in a statement. "Turtle eggs basically look like ping pong balls, and we wanted to know where they were going, put those two ideas together and you have the InvestEGGator."
After finalizing the design, Williams-Guillen and University of Kent colleague Helen Pheasey placed decoys in 101 turtle nests across four beaches in Costa Rica. Of the nests armed with InvestEggators, a quarter were taken illegally, giving the team a chance to put their tech to work.
One egg traced back to a residential property before losing signal, while another traveled to a bar 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the nesting site. The furthest distance traveled saw one decoy end up 137 kilometers (85 miles) inland. One InvestEGGator was rumbled, and pictures of the dissected decoy were sent to the researchers from Cariari, a town 43 kilometers (26.7 miles) from their point of origin. Most eggs were traded in the local area, which is highly valuable information as it can inform the best conservation practices to try and protect clutches.
"Knowing that a high proportion of eggs remain in the local area helps us target our conservation efforts," said Pheasey in a statement. "We can now focus our efforts on raising awareness in the local communities and direct law enforcement to this local issue. It also means we know where the consumers are, which assists us in focusing demand reduction campaigns.
"Our research showed that placing a decoy into a turtle nest did not damage the incubating embryos and that the decoys work. We showed that it was possible to track illegally removed eggs from beach to end consumer as shown by our longest track, which identified the entire trade chain covering 137 kilometers."
Following the success of InvestEGGator, its hoped similar technologies can be used to track the illegal trade of other animals, including parrot eggs and adapting the transmitter to fit shark fins.