'Frankenturtles' Used to Help Save the Real Things

Mar 9, 2017

Assistant professor at VIMS, David Kaplan, prepares "Frankenturtles" for release in the water.
Credit David Malmquist / VIMS

Each spring, thousands of young Loggerhead turtles migrate to the Chesapeake Bay for the summer -- but the journey is dangerous for these protected species, some are struck by boats. Last summer, researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science set out to identify the deadliest areas and to figure out what might be done. 

Loggerhead turtles have natural camouflage and spend most of their time underwater. And while that may help when it comes to hiding from natural predators, it makes them difficult to spot from a boat. 

Each summer, dozens are killed. 

With a lifespan similar to humans the toll adds up. 

"You might think that a few individuals dying out of a population of 5,000 to 20,000 is not very much, but if that's happening every year over their entire adolescence, then little by little you can make a big dent in their population," says David Kaplan, a scientist with VIMS. "That's why there's concern and that's why we need to figure this out.

So last summer, Kaplan and graduate student Bianca Santos set out to do just that -- using dead Loggerhead sea turtles, dubbed “Frankenturtles.”

"We pretty much got the top and bottom of the turtle, we filled the inside with foam and went all mid-evil on it with zip-ties and drill bits, then put it back together," describes Santos. 

They equipped the Frankenturtles with GPS, then tracked them, using the data to figure out where most turtles were being struck. 

Graduate student Bianca Santos with crew deploying a dead turtle.
Credit David Malmquist / VIMS

Though they're still crunching the numbers, raw data points to lower parts of the Chesapeake Bay, some near the mouth of the James River. The information can help them figure out what is killing the turtles.

"Having a location will help us decide is it commercial shipping, is it recreational boating activity," Kaplan says. "That would help us narrow those two down and try to mitigate against those causes of death.

The project feeds into a larger study by the Virginia Aquarium, to figure out the deaths of several hundred turtles in the Chesapeake Bay each year.