Turtle tracking 101: When all else fails, call your manicurist

Sometimes, searching for answers to the oceans’ greatest mysteries requires hard work, a little ingenuity and a good manicurist.

A team of researchers led by Florida International University researcher Kate Mansfield and Florida Atlantic University researcher Jeanette Wyneken have developed a safe and reliable method for tracking young sea turtles, an initiative once thought improbable.

“In turtles, we have what we refer to as the lost years, which is the time a new sea turtle leaves the nesting beaches until many years later when they return near-shore as juveniles,” said Mansfield, who in addition to her appointment with FIU’s School of Environment, Arts and Society maintains a joint appointment with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center through the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies.

“Any information we can collect on young sea turtles is new. During the lost years for Atlantic loggerheads, we know they likely make their way around the Atlantic, but we have no idea what they’re doing. We need to learn more how they interact with their environment so we can better protect them.”

Step one involved attaching satellite tracking tags to the young turtles. However, the traditional battery-powered devices used on more mature turtles were too cumbersome and did not attach well to the young turtles’ small, yet rapidly growing, bodies. The team, instead, opted for a lighter solar-powered tag originally developed for birds. It was a simple solution, but other challenges were on the horizon.

To attach the solar-powered devices, the team started with marine epoxies and other adhesives traditionally used to attach tracking devices to older turtles. Some of the epoxies impaired the growth of the turtles’ shells and had to be removed. Other adhesives were not reliable enough. Unable to withstand the rapid growth of the turtles’ shells, the tags fell off in a matter of weeks. After several failed attempts, the team threw out what they knew about traditional animal tracking and realized it was going to take a MacGyver-style approach if their research was ever to get off the ground and into open waters.

“One of our techs had originally gone to fashion design school, and she had some ideas for possible harnesses,” Mansfield said.

So the researchers began cutting up old bathing suits, trying to design a harness that would retain the tracker, not impede the growth or swimming of the turtle, and eventually break free from the turtle once sufficient data were collected. That plan failed. Never ones to give up, Mansfield and Wyneken decided to take a different approach.

Wyneken regularly showed up to the lab with perfectly polished toenails, which got the scientists thinking.

“Our nails are made of keratin. And a turtle’s shell is made of keratin. We started thinking maybe the answer was in our own nails,” Mansfield said.

Wyneken picked up the phone and called her manicurist in Boynton Beach. After a quick conversation about acrylic nails, adhesives and the finer points of manicures, the team had a new plan. They hopped in the car, headed to the local pharmacy store and picked up an acrylic nail-fill kit in the cosmetics aisle.

With solar-powered tags and acrylic nail adhesive in their possession, the team’s first two problems were solved. The acrylic help reduce the peeling of the turtles’ shells, enabling the tags to remain in place for more than two months in the lab setting. But there was still an issue with the shape of the turtle’s shell, which features a pronounced ridge in the middle that prevented the tags from sitting level on the turtles’ backs.

“We fashioned some old wet suit material that could be attached to either side of the ridge,” Mansfield said. “But the veterinary-grade glue we would normally use to attach this to the setup didn’t do the trick.”

Ever so close to launching the research, the team refused to give up. One of the other lab techs, whose family owns a hair salon in the area, noticed the veterinary glue had a distinct smell that was very similar to hair extension glue. The team decided to add a helping of the bonding agent to the acrylic base coat, a product that’s gentle enough for a human scalp but strong enough to hold the tracking apparatus in place — and toupees, for that matter.

After several evaluations in the lab, the team realized they had developed the perfect recipe for attaching tracking tags to the young turtles. First tested in the lab to ensure the tags did not impede the turtles’ growth, movements or behavior, the tags were then tested to ensure they would perform well in a marine environment. The first tagged turtles were deployed in 2009 and successfully tracked for a range of one to six months, providing preliminary data for Mansfield’s and Wyneken’s research.

“Turtles may spend months or years in an oceanic environment far from land,” Wyneken said. “Tracking is the first step toward saving endangered sea turtles because not much is known about how small turtles spend their first weeks at sea. Technology was a real limitation, until now. With this new technique for tagging new turtles, we may increase our knowledge about the threats endangered turtles face and the habitats they need to maintain healthy populations.”

The results of the team’s efforts were published June 21 in Marine Ecology Progress Series.

“The methods we developed will revolutionize our ability to study the in-water movements and habitat use of very young, very small, oceanic stage sea turtles,” Mansfield said. “This work allows us to track a whole new size- and age-class of sea turtle. Population models rely heavily on data derived from older turtles or hatchlings that are more accessible to researchers within coastal and beach habitats. By identifying the movement patterns and behavior of oceanic stage turtles, we will ultimately be able to identify areas for targeted species management.”