'Frankenturtles' used to help marine wildlife in Chesapeake Bay

Researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are putting the washed-up carcasses of loggerhead turtles to good use – by resurrecting the corpses and releasing them back into the wild.

While it may sound like something out of a Mary Shelley novel, the reanimated corpses, humorously nicknamed ‘Frankenturtles’, will be used to help better understand the drifting patterns of turtle carcasses, which will in turn help to protect living sea turtles.

“It might seem sort of gross, but it’s a good way to reuse a dead turtle that would otherwise be buried,” says David Kaplan, assistant professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “And hopefully, the deployment of our two Frankenturtles will ultimately help lower the number of turtle deaths in the future.”

Kaplan and graduate student Bianca Santos removed the internal organs of two dead loggerhead turtles, which they then replaced with buoyant Styrofoam. The shells of the carcasses were then reattached, and the finished Frankenturtles equipped with GPS units for monitoring before being sent back out to sea.

The study began with the rerelease of the corpses on 13 June into open Bay waters about halfway between the mouth of the York River and Cape Charles on Virginia’s bayside Eastern Shore. The two Frankenturtles taking part in the study include the remains of a 15-20-year-old, 150 pound loggerhead killed by a boat strike, and a younger, 70 pound turtle whose cause of death remains unknown.

By tracking the movements of the turtle corpses, the researchers hope that they will be able to hone in on likely causes of sea-turtle death, while wildlife authorities could map out safe zones for the endangered sea creatures.

The team have also developed, two highly bouyant wood-Styrofoam turtle models and a pair of heavier bucket drifters – each corresponding to a different stage in the flotation cycle of dead sea turtles, which initially sink after dying but quickly float back to the surface.

“Our plan is to deploy the drifters on several different occasions – under a variety of wind and wave conditions – and in locations where mortality events could occur during the spring peak in strandings,” says Santos. “We’ll then use the separation rate between our bucket drifters, which closely track water movement, and our turtle carcasses to determine the amount of wind forcing to apply to simulated carcasses in our computer model.” 

“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,” says Santos. “By knowing the ‘where,’” she adds, “we can better look at the ‘why.’"

The Frankenturtles will be trackable via GPS for approximately 3-4 days following the launch, at which time the GPS devices will be retrieved for future use. You can view the motion of the corpses in real-time via the VIMS website.

Jade Fell investigates whether current experiments in science and technology could lead to the creation of a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster in the July 2016 issue of E&T.


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