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DISCOVERY & INVENTION

Egg Protectors

A scientist and a makeup artist team up to catch poachers who steal sea turtle eggs

During the late summer and early fall, an awesome spectacle takes place on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. Thousands of olive ridley sea turtles emerge from the ocean. Slowly, they haul themselves up the beach. Using their flippers like shovels, the turtles dig holes in the sand. They lay their eggs. Then they make their way back down the beach and into the sea. 

Hundreds of tourists travel to Nicaragua to see the turtles. But the event also attracts some unwanted visitors. Poachers come to the beaches too. They steal the eggs and sell them on the black market. 

Artist Lauren Wilde holds one of the decoy eggs.

Scientists with the conservation group Paso Pacifíco are trying to stop the poachers. For the past three years, they have been working on a device called the InvestEGGator. It looks just like a sea turtle egg—with one big difference. It contains a GPS tracker. If poachers steal the decoy, the tracker can send out a signal about where the egg is. 

Ecologist Kim Williams-Guillén worked on the design of the InvestEGGator. She hopes the device helps track down the wildlife criminals. “We may be able to put a big dent in turtle poaching,” she says. 

Turtle Threats

Sea turtle hatchlings weigh just one ounce!

Sea turtles are some of the most endangered animals on the planet. Out of the seven sea turtle species, six are at risk of becoming extinct. 

From the moment sea turtles are born, they face many threats. Tiny hatchlings must crawl across vast beaches to reach the water. Birds, dogs, and other predators snatch many of them before they get there. In the ocean, turtles can get caught in fishing nets and drown. Many others die from eating plastic trash they mistake for food.

Poachers make life even harder for the turtles. Every year, millions of sea turtle eggs are stolen from nests and sold to restaurants. In some parts of the world, the eggs are considered a delicacy. People pay as much as $300 per egg! 

How the Egg Tracker Is Made

How do you catch turtle egg thieves? By building a tracking device that looks like an egg. Here’s how Kim Williams-Guillén and Lauren Wilde put the InvestEGGator together. 

1) MOLDED EGG: Soft plastic is used to mold the egg. Real turtle eggs aren’t hard like chicken eggs.

2) HIGH-TECH INSIDES: The egg has a batterypowered tracking device hidden inside.

3) COLOR COATING: The decoy is painted to look like a real turtle egg and covered with waterproof glue.

4) FAKE OUT: It’s hard to spot the fake egg among real olive ridley turtle eggs.

Think: How might the scientists have tested the decoy before using it in real nests?

A Good Egg

Williams-Guillén was inspired to track poachers after watching a TV show. In the show, government agents used a hidden tracking device to catch a criminal. Williams-Guillén realized that she could do the same thing with turtle eggs.

First, she designed the eggshell on her computer. Then she built it with a 3-D printer. Getting the right texture was tricky. Sea turtle eggs have squishier shells than chicken eggs. Williams-Guillén made the eggs out of a soft type of plastic.

To make the decoys look real, Williams-Guillén turned to Lauren Wilde. She’s a makeup artist who works in film and TV. Wilde helped sand and paint the eggs. She also coated the eggs with waterproof glue to protect the hardware inside. The final egg looks a bit like a Ping-Pong ball. 

A Sea Turtle's Life

Sea turtles can live to be 100 years old! Here are the steps in a sea turtle’s life cycle.

1) After baby turtles hatch, they race to the sea and paddle toward the open ocean. 

2) Young turtles spend 5 to 20 years in the open ocean. Depending on the species, they eat food such as algae, crabs, and jellyfish. 

3) Once they’ve grown to the size of a dinner plate, sea turtles return to feeding grounds closer to the coast. 

4) When they’re ready to mate, adults swim to areas near nesting beaches. Females mate every 2 to 3 years. 

5) Female sea turtles return to the beach where they were born. They dig nests in the sand and lay their eggs. 

6) Between mating seasons, adults migrate to feeding grounds. 


Think: How do poachers interrupt a sea turtle’s life cycle?

Tracker Testing

But will the InvestEGGator really work? For the past two years, researcher Helen Pheasey has been testing the eggs in Costa Rica. She wants to see if the tracker works, and if the decoys can fool poachers.

Pheasey has a few tricks to slip InvestEGGators into turtle nests. First, she walks along the beach, looking for turtle tracks. Once Pheasey finds a female, she approaches it quietly so she doesn’t scare it. When the turtle is midway through laying its eggs, Pheasey tucks a fake one into the nest. The turtle lays more eggs, hiding the decoy.

So far, the technology seems to work. Pheasey has successfully tracked a few stolen eggs. She hopes her tests help scientists improve the device and, eventually, put a stop to turtle poaching. “If you can identify poachers’ trade routes, you can have police waiting for them,” she says. That could protect sea turtles for generations to come.

Continue the Learning Journey

Make an eye-catching poster that calls attention to the problem of egg poaching and other threats that sea turtles face. Be sure to include reasons why people should not buy sea turtle eggs and ways that they can help protect sea turtles. Use attention-grabbing colors and drawings that will get readers to notice your message.

VIDEO
The Life of a Sea Turtle

Watch a video about protecting endangered sea turtles.

As you watch the video, write down new facts you learned about sea turtles. Then design your own sea turtle trivia game! Use information from the article and video to write 10 questions about sea turtles. Questions could include facts like how many species of sea turtles there are, where they live, and what they eat. Write each question on one side of a notecard and the answer on the other side. Then play your game with your family members or friends! Who was able to answer the most questions correctly?

SLIDESHOW
How to Create a Comic

Turn your story into an action-packed comic strip.

Reread the diagram “A Sea Turtle’s Life.” Then use the slideshow above to create a comic strip about a sea turtle going through each of its life stages. What is your sea turtle’s name? What is your sea turtle doing during its life? How do its surroundings change? When you’re done, be sure to share your work with a friend or family member!

Help keep sea turtle eggs away from poachers! Pretend you need to move sea turtle eggs to a safe place, quickly. Play an “egg” race game using spoons and any small round objects, like rubber balls or limes. Mark a start line and an end line. Then together with your family members or friends, race to carry the “egg” on your spoon from start to finish! If your egg falls off the spoon, you have to go back to the beginning. Who won the race?

This article was written by Katie Free for SuperScience magazine.

Image Credits: Andres Valencia/Aurora Photos/Media Bakery (header); Wild Wonders of Europe/Zankl/NaturePL.com (hatchling); Andrew Spear for GOOD (egg tracker #1-2); Josh Schaedel for GOOD (egg tracker #3); Kim Williams-Guillén/Paso Pacifico (egg tracker #4); Kate Francis (tutle life cycle)