So how do you fool an egg thief so completely? Thanks to a material called Ninja Flex, which has a squishiness that approximates that of a sea turtle egg. By loading Ninja Flex into a 3D printer, Williams-Guillen could build an egg crate that was both flexible and strong. . “After many iterations, we were able to come up with something that really looks like a turtle egg and looks like a turtle egg,” says Williams-Guillen. Since poachers empty turtle nests at night, palpate sand, and largely rely on touch, they seemingly fall for the trick.
Williams-Guillen prints the InvestEGGator in one piece. “I’m able to go in and open it with an X-ACTO knife, crush it enough to push the transmitter in, then glue it back on,” she said. Think of this transmitter as a tiny version of your cell phone. “We really wanted it to be consumer electronics, because A) we’re wildlife biologists – we’re not going to build this from scratch, a transmitter,” Williams-Guillen says. “And B) we are wildlife biologists– we do not have money. So it had to be something relatively inexpensive.
They ended up with a simple transmitter equipped with a GPS that also uses a regular cellular connection. When a poacher transports the InvestEGGator across Costa Rica, the device connects to cell phone towers, giving researchers location data once per hour. “As long as you have reasonable network coverage, you have a reasonable chance of transmitting,” says Williams-Guillen.
Williams-Guillen and Pheasey found that while poachers tended to sell eggs locally from door to door, the InvestEGGator was also able to track long-distance transport – a trip was 137 kilometers from the beach to the center of the Costa Rica. Pheasey could zoom in on the tracker using Google Maps and in fact identify that the egg was behind a supermarket, possibly in a loading dock or alleyway. “To be completely honest, there’s no real reason to be here if you don’t do something a little suspicious,” says Pheasey. “I actually went to visit him, so sort of checked him out in the field. And yes, it was behind a supermarket, which suggests it’s a transfer meeting point.
From there, InvestEGGator data showed the decoy egg had gone to a residential property, further evidence that the supermarket was serving as a sort of illicit distribution point. “It’s, again, consistent with what we know from the business that people are selling these eggs door to door,” Pheasey adds. “We were pretty happy with that result because it really proved the concept – that’s what we’re trying to do with these things.
Inevitably, however, their fake eggs would be exposed whenever someone tried to eat one. The researchers tracked an InvestEGGator that disconnected 43 kilometers from the nest where they had buried it. A week and a half later, another local turtle monitoring project contacted the researchers, relaying photos they had received of the missing egg – now dissected. The person who sent them the photos was actually open about it: They said they had indeed bought sea turtle eggs, and did the group know why one of them was full of electronics? ? “Absolutely no concern about, you know, the fact that they bought turtle eggs,” says Pheasey.
But, she points out, “in Costa Rica it is not illegal to buy them – it is illegal to take them off the beach to traffic them. Which I think gave them more confidence in sharing this information.
Egg trafficking is just one of the many aggravated threats sea turtles face. On the one hand, they confuse oceanic plastics with food. And increasing temperatures make the sand warmer, which is a double problem for turtles: it can get so hot that developing young perish, and because a turtle’s sex is determined by the temperature at which it develops (hotter for females, cooler for males), the sex ratios of populations change.