Scientists Are Using “Frankenturtles” To Protect Marine Wildlife In Chesapeake Bay

'Frankenturtle'. © D. Malmquist/VIMS

Researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are converting the washed-up corpses of loggerhead turtles into zombie cyborgs – or “Frankenturtles”, as they’re calling them – as part of their efforts to protect their living counterparts.

Like something from a Mary Shelley novel, the scientists removed the internal organs of two dead turtles and filled them with Styrofoam in order to make them float, thereby replicating the buoyancy of a recently deceased turtle, full of gas from decomposing tissues.

By attaching a GPS tracking device to these rotting monstrosities and placing them back in the waters of Chesapeake Bay, the researchers hope to configure a “turtle carcass drift model”, revealing how winds and ocean currents affect the movement of dead turtles. This model may then enable them to work backward from turtle stranding sites in order to pinpoint where the animals died – which should give them a clue as to what killed them.

Preparing to present this work at the International Sea Turtle Society's 36th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, researcher Bianca Santos explained that “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 added, “we can better look at the ‘why’.”

For instance, if it turns out that large numbers of turtles are dying in areas where the fishing industry has a high presence, then this may indicate that they are becoming trapped in nets, highlighting a need to modify this equipment in order to make it safer for turtles.

Remarking on this unconventional yet potentially highly useful work, co-researcher David Kaplan admits that “it might seem sort of gross, but it’s a good way to reuse a dead turtle that would otherwise be buried.” If successful, he says, “the deployment of our two Frankenturtles will ultimately help lower the number of turtle deaths in the future.”

Image in text: Researcher David Kaplan inspects a "Frankenturtle" before deploying it. © D. Malmquist/VIMS.

Bottom image: Researchers deploy a "Frankenturtle". © D. Malmquist/VIMS.

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