Bold Innovations Set the Pace for Research and Conservation

In the 1950s, Dr. Archie Carr used the technology of his day in an attempt to track green turtle inter-nesting movements at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. © Courtesy of Sea Turtle Conservancy

In the 1950s, Dr. Archie Carr used the technology of his day in an attempt to track green turtle inter-nesting movements at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. © Courtesy of Sea Turtle Conservancy

By NICOLAS PILCHER

The very word innovation excites some people and simultaneously imparts fear of the unknown in others. Throughout history, innovators have constantly been met with resistance, but those who innovate ultimately achieve success far beyond the dreams of others, and they set the stage for worldwide changes. “Television is just a passing fad,” said some, and “Color photographs will never be practical.” Yet, while revolutionary in their early days, those innovations led to today’s wall-size plasma and LED screens and to digital imagery comparable to the acuity of the human eye. Innovation is the future, and without it our lives would not be what they are today. The same is true for sea turtle conservation.

The creators of the American television series CSI might bend the truth a little, yet the innovative technology they portray actually exists to solve forensic mysteries. DNA analysis used in laboratories to identity villains is the very same technology used to determine where turtles nest and forage and to reveal details of their ancestral origin. Sea turtle biologists who study DNA are today’s CSI teams, and the science of genetics that was considered revolutionary in Mendel’s day has been augmented by DNA extraction and an ever-expanding array of gene sequencing tools to the point that we can practically identify a turtle by name.

A far cry from early methods, modern technology has enabled scientists to study sea turtles’ “lost years” using solar powered tracking devices. © Projeto Tamar / NOAA / University of Central Florida

A far cry from early methods, modern technology has enabled scientists to study sea turtles’ “lost years” using solar powered tracking devices. © Projeto Tamar / NOAA / University of Central Florida

Early space programs paved the way for orbiting satellites that today enable instantaneous contact with vehicles and airplanes anywhere in the world. That technology, coupled with advances in electronic miniaturization, allows us to attach a tiny tracking device to a sea turtle and unravel the mysteries of its migrations and life habits. We have come a long way. Looking back to the original forays into turtle tracking by innovators such as Archie Carr in the 1950s, the height of innovation then was to attach a helium balloon to a turtle’s shell and watch its movements from the nearest beach (pictured at left). Taking tracking one step further, man has even learned to harness the power of the sun, and miniature solar-powered transmitters are helping to solve the mystery of sea turtles’ “lost years” (pictured above).

Reducing the entanglement of turtles in the world’s fisheries is a constant challenge as well, and who would have thought innovations from the world of optics and electronics, coupled with some clever thinking and experimental rigor, would provide solutions to the problem? Ultraviolet LED technology, as you will see in the article that follows, is a shining star lighting the path to solving one of sea turtles’ largest threats. And biological sciences, coupled with nuclear technology, practically allow scientists to know what a turtle was eating for breakfast. Stable isotopes, as you will also see, are helping us understand feeding patterns and habitat use, and even point us in the direction of the next conservation hotspots. As shown later, social science innovations are happening as well, including a strategy in Central America that cleverly engages local communities with turtle conservation through sports.

Innovation of all types bubbles up from thinkers and doers and challengers and people who seek to make a difference and help sea turtles. Innovation is about not necessarily knowing what the solution is or looks like, but being willing to gamble on a new idea, to look forward, and to dream, do, and create—things that mankind is well versed at and for which turtles are grateful.