of a sea turtle nest as a baby about to be born, and the volunteer nest
watchers and National Park Service biologists as the pacing family
members -- waiting, waiting, waiting.
August 21, 2014
It makes Turtle Sense:
Giving cell phones to turtles
By CATHERINE KOZAK
When Eric Kaplan, a
Frisco homeowner and founder of the Hatteras Island Ocean Center,
realized how much time, money and energy went into management of sea
turtle nests in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, he saw the solution in
modern wireless technology that could pinpoint the hatch date.
“The best way to describe it,” Kaplan said, “is we’ve given cell phones to turtles. ”
sensors can help biologists narrow down the hatch window for eggs
during the six week nesting period, protective beach closures around
nests could be drastically reduced.
That translates to fewer
resources that will be required by the park to protect the more than
100 nests found on beaches in an average year.
By law, park
biologists must protect sea turtles. Staff and volunteers keep track of
where turtles nest, and 50 days after the eggs are laid, they fence off
a swath of beach from the nest to the ocean. The area is closed to
off-road vehicles and pedestrians until the eggs hatch and the nest has
been excavated by park staff, or until 100 days has passed.
prolonged closures create conflict for recreation users of the beach,
Kaplan said, but the sensors could eliminate the need for any more than
one to three days of closures around nests.
currently all of Cape Point is closed for a single turtle nest and
could remain so for another week or so, or until three days after the
“We want turtles and people to co-exist on the beach,” he said. “And that will help our economy.”
will also lead to more cost-effective turtle management, Kaplan said.
Once the kinks are worked out, there could be an eco-tourism
opportunity where folks could be invited to see the babies boil out of
the nest and waddle their adorable selves to the ocean.
drivers should be pleased to know that the Park Service is providing
their share of costs for the project out of its ORV permit fees.
“There are no losers with this,” Kaplan said.
who built his Frisco home in 2009, is a semi-retired software designer
who found success in making Bluetooth wireless technology
consumer-friendly, so it wasn’t an enormous leap for him to design a
small polyurethane “egg” with a wireless sensor to put in a nest.
the sensor detects temperature change and movement that indicate an
impending hatch, the data is sent to a cell phone network, collected by
special software and monitored remotely by someone on a computer. In
the near future, he said, the hope is that software will automatically
analyze the data.
“It really wasn’t like it was a particularly insightful idea,” Kaplan said. “It makes sense.”
in 2013, the program, now aptly known as Turtle Sense, is a cooperative
partnership between the Seashore, Kaplan, and NerdswithoutBorders, a
charitable venture created by tech innovators.
childhood buddy, Tom Zimmerman, an electrical engineer with IBM
Research-Almaden, designed the sensor package in 2013 as a contribution
Another friend, Samuel Wantman, a retired software
designer, also worked on development of the first phase of the design.
Wantman is now managing the project under the umbrella of the Nerds
organization, and is being assisted by other tech wizards.
and the Nerds – whom he called “like-minded people who want to get
together to make the world a better place" -- are all donating their
“To me, it was becoming vested in the community,” Kaplan
said about his contribution, “and not being someone who takes from the
All the technology and software is open-source and available to anyone to use.
“Any place you need remote monitoring, or to measure stuff, this could be used,” Kaplan said.
this month, for the first time, a turtle hatch was successfully
predicted in one of the 17 nests that have sensors in them. That means,
Kaplan said, that the fundamental technology is working. Tweaking and
fine-tuning will continue over the next few seasons.
challenge, he said, has been to make the sensors very low power and
able to withstand the harsh environment on the beach. Consequently, as
many wires as possible must be eliminated and the “egg” needs to be
completely sealed from the elements.
immediate goal is to get the cost of the sensors down to about $100 a
piece, he said. Once it takes off, they could reasonably be expected to
go as low as $10 each.
Britta Muiznieks, a park wildlife
biologist overseeing research projects, said that a sensor in another
test nest had also showed activity. When it was checked, the nest had a
lot of overwash and it was not clear if it was about to hatch or had
hatched. But three days later, she said, it was determined by
counting the shells that 95 percent of the eggs had hatched
At a second nest, however, Muiznieks received an
e-mail the night before the nest hatched that there was activity. It
turns out, she said, that the nest “boiled” – the hatchlings
emerged all at once -- that evening, and the next morning, 55 turtle
tracks were counted heading to the ocean, and more live hatchlings were
found still in the nest.
“These first nests are helping us establish a baseline,” she said. “In the future, I think it has very good potential.”
said that the Park Service has been looking for innovative ways to do
things, known in park-speak as adaptive management.
knowledge, she said, it is the first time that such technology has been
used successfully in management of protected species. She said
that she could see an application of it being used in management of
endangered or threatened birds.
“We’ve been lucky – Eric has
these connections in the high-tech world,” she said. “We don’t have
access to these sorts of things.
“It’s been a really great partnership.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Read more about Turtle Sense and other programs and exhibits at the Hatteras Island Ocean Center website, www.hioceancenter.org.