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...
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.
So next time you're on holiday in an exotic location, ask the dive centre how you can contribute!