Did you know that every individual Sea Turtle looks different, scientifically speaking? We are busy designing a state of the art project to ID Turtles using facial recognition software. Why is this so important? Keep reading to find out...
Grumpy Turtle was taken by our very own Lee Hankinson. Check out his instagram for more epic photos!
Why identify Turtles? The Big Question!
We don't know a lot about Turtles from a scientific perspective and we certainly learn more everyday. One gap in our understanding, is where exactly Turtles go in the "lost years".
Turtles spend their entire lives in the water, except when the Mother's come ashore to nest. As well as everyday "swimming about" they swim to their feeding grounds and to mating grounds. They swim to the very same beach of which they were born, after roughly 25 years of roaming the oceans, to lay their own eggs. Their migration routes can be thousands of miles or just a few... We don't have much data on their routes, as satellite tagging is expensive and so our understanding of their migrations is really limited. These migration routes often take Turtles between countries. The different conservation laws protecting Sea Turtles in between these countries, makes conservation of the species very tricky! Understanding these cross- country antics is important to help us develop policies and laws to protect these wonderful animals, across political boundaries of which the Turtles don't recognise. This is where tagging comes in...
Traditional tagging methods involve the Turtle being identified with metal tags on their fore flippers. The flippers are pierced with tag is each side, with a country code and an individual number. Nesting females are tagged after they've laid their eggs on beaches, by trained professionals. Males aren’t as easy to tag, but can be caught and bought into a boat for the procedure. A physically difficult feat for tagger AND Turtle!.
The Tagging process
The second image shows a scar from a lost tag, and also meaning lost data, a reason for this to be used alongside Photo Identification Photographs: Lee Hankinson
Tags not only allow us to find out the migratory paths of the tagged Turtles, but it allows us to collect really incredibly valuable data. If we can identify each Turtle individually then we can monitor how many nests she lays each year (up to 15, each with up to 200 eggs!!) as well as the annual gaps in nesting, and then where she goes next. Males can be tracked on feeding and mating areas. We can try and estimate population levels, an extremely important tool in conservation. A bit more sobering use for the tags is to identify Turtles that have died in drowning in nets, on fishing lines, by ingesting plastic or in boating accidents.
Tagging is extremely important tool for helping to conserve Turtles. However there a number of big faults with this traditional tagging process. The tags (like an earring) are extremely prone to falling off- either during a subsequent nesting when she’s digging around in the sand- or whilst swimming. This can potentially skew data. I have seen a Mother post egg laying, with tags in flippers from different regions- both an unnecessary tag but a possible skew on the data. It is also very hard to see the exact tag numbers if just looking at Turtle swimming underwater. I have also tagged a Turtle myself- and it is clear that this is a painful experience for the Mother Turtles.
So it's not a perfect system.. but fear not... There is a far less costly, less intrusive and far wider reaching method to track and collect ecological data of these beautiful animals…
A Sea Turtle face being run through the i3S identification process. Photograph: Lee Hankinson
Every Turtle has a unique face. The scales on a Turtle's face (also- scutes) all make a pattern that is completely unique for that individual. We can take a photograph of the side of the Turtle's face, run it through Identification software and just like a fingerprint, we have a log of every Turtle.
Hurrahhhh! Photo Identification for Sarah the Turtle! All that is needed is a good quality photo. This removes all physical interaction with Turtles during tagging- making it much more ethical. A Turtle's face won't change after it reaches adulthood- so there is less chance in data becoming skewed.
Also, collecting the data is a lot easier than the traditional tagging method. And thats where it gets SUPER exciting... The vital in water data collection can be done by snorkelers and divers taking photos on their holiday. Conservation organisations can take red-light photographs of Mothers on the beach. Really un-intrusive and with some training, easy to roll out! General public, all over the world, have the opportunity to take a photo and contribute to really vital scientific research on Turtles during their dive or swim. Data collection potential becomes enormous, cheap, and everyone can get involved.
This system proves very popular for local dive centres who rightly recognise that divers are usually lovers of nature. Tourists love the opportunity of spotting a "new" Turtle and maybe even being given the chance to name The Turtle, and are keen to be involved (choosing them over a competitor...)
Ensuring local businesses are trained with the software benefits the Turtles, as they are now seen with an economic value. But it also protects the species as a whole, as by improving our understanding of their cross country migrations, we can improve policy.
Taking photos of Nesting Mothers MUST be undertaken
by trained conservation teams. Mothers are extremely
sensitive to disturbance- and will LEAVE the nesting process
if disturbed by light or human disturbance. Our Team know
how to approach the Mothers with red light, to allow us to
collect precious data whilst not disturbing her!
Why Our Team?
Lee helped initiate and rollout this programme in The Seychelles in 2015/16 where it proved popular. Together, Molly and Lee were involved in the collaboration between conservation projects in Malaysia who had started using i3S but had yet to combine data. Lee fully trained both projects in the same software, to improve cross over of data. The findings coming out of this are super exciting, as some Turtles were just migrating between neighbouring Islands to feed and nest! (Read more here!)
As well as having expert knowledge of the program and how to ID Turtles, Lee is also incredibly personable which is why the previous projects have been such a success. Molly has experience in the field of Turtle conservation and has a real passion for community efforts in conservation and together with different talents make a strong team for bringing this software to teams on the ground.
Lee is a Marine Biologist, with a masters in Ecology. With experience around the world in a variety of branches of the marine sector, his passions are focussed on research and development in ocean conservation. He helped to develop a Turtle Photo Identification programme in The Seychelles, where he worked with local dive centres and NGO's to role out a successful system for Turtle ID. He then worked alongside Molly Manwill and the teams at Lang Tengah Turtle Watch and Perhentian Turtle Project to create a network, to collaborate between Projects already using similar software. This collaboration and the skills Lee taught staff on site already is hugely successful, and results from this project have already started proving interesting.
Such the success of the project, Lee will returning to Malaysia in late 2018 to continue advising on the expansion of this exciting project, involving projects further South, to create a larger photo identification network. Lee brings absolutely integral knowledge, expertise and incredible interpersonal skills to making a photo identification project successful, and he is our Project developer and Manager.
You can read more about Molly here- as Founder of this very website. Her involvement in The Turtle ID is slightly different to Lee. Having 3 years field experience in the biology and conservation of Turtles in Malaysia, she has developed a passion for education and writing on topics of conservation. She has the practical skills needed for Turtle conservation and the passion to take on the social aspects of this project. Social media is a powerful tool, and she hopes to engage the public with the project through blogging, instagram and Facebook.
She is also designing a variety of community engagement projects, including beach cleans, craft initiatives and school visits.
We're super passionate about this! We want to see Conservation working for wildlife but also for the lovely locals, who would benefit from keeping these majestic animals alive and well (win-win!) Projects working alongside communities are often the only sustainable way forward with conservation. A goal of conservation should always be to train and develop local teams to ensure that they have self sufficient abilities to carry on conservation work.
We want to conduct a trip in 2018 to roll out this fantastic project to new areas that both have community based problems with Turtle conservation and that are dependant on tourism income.
Important tasks include training NGO's and local dive centres in how to use the software, showing them how to advertise and be proud of their involvement. Ensuring local dive centres and snorkelling trips are interacting Turtles correctly is also extremely important to maintain the safety of the Turtles, and the survival of the species and also the economic value. We will also train local NGO’s working to conserve nesting Mothers- and show them how to get good quality images of the Mother’s scute pattern. A network needs to be set up for these organisations to send their photos to a central database where patterns in nesting/ feeding can be established and a central hub of Turtle fingerprints can be kept.
Unless you've been living in a cave, you will have seen the huge environmental problems causes by Plastic. The plague in our oceans of plastic is a huge problem to small island communities who face huge wash ups of plastic on a daily basis. But there is a solution for these communities. We hope to engage beach cleans on key Turtle nesting beaches, where we want to promote beach cleans and subsequent crafty creations! We want locals to be able to benefit from a problem that is largely not there fault... By creating tourist trinkets from plastic that washes up on these beaches, education at multiple stages will occur- and create a sustainable income on the islands.
Beach Cleans in Malaysia often resulted in a lot of plastic- especially single use such as straws
School visits teaching biology and conservation have proved incredibly popular in the past, and visiting schools to do a fun science lessons serves as both a great opportunity to inspire the next generation of conservationists but also to teach about the new program that the local children can get involved with.
And if thats not enough, we also plan to lend our skills in various ways that the fantastic NGO's on the ground may need. For example Lee is highly trained in Coral Reef Monitoring and Surveying. We want to give our time as much as possible- and by helping out organisations in anyway that they need help, is a great way to be as productive as possible during this two month trip.
This software can also be applied to other species such Sharks and Manta Rays, so there is HUGE potential. But for now, we are super excited to promote a method to increase our ecological understanding, boost community involvement, provide alternative livelihoods and help conserve the majestic Sea Turtles. It is extremely important to work WITH communities and to incentivise conservation work. We hope you agree that Turtle ID is an extremely cool way to do science with minimal intrusion, maximum enjoyment!!
Where do Candles come into it?
We are selling Mydas Candles to help to fund this project. We are proud of the candles, as they are recycled bottles that would have been thrown away, if they hadn't been and turned into a boutique beautiful candle. Reducing our impacts on the planet, goes a huge way to protect all our planet's inhabitants.
100% of profits go DIRECTLY to fund this project. All the money we have left after production costs, will fund this project.
Examples of how we’ll use funds we raise are for flights, equipment (including and not limited to cameras, laptops, stationary, equipment for school visits) and accommodation. We are keen to fund our own project, as so often in conservation projects are funded by grants, but do not necessarily provide long term funding solutions. By funding ourselves, we hope to maintain an income source to continue to bring this software and training to new areas. We also want to prove that conservation can be sustainable, and we want to create amazing incentives for you to get involved and spend your very hard earned money.