The secret life of baby turtles: A novel system to predict hatchling emergence, detect infertile nests, and remotely monitor sea turtle nest events
Current understanding of sea turtle nesting, hatching, and emergence events has been largely limited to observable events on the surface of the sand, though recent approaches using audio or visual equipment have allowed scientists to better understand some underground nest phenomena. We used a technology-based approach to define motion-related Caretta caretta hatching and emergence nest events. We describe a novel low-cost, accelerometer-based system called TurtleSense that can detect movement and temperature within sea turtle nests remotely. TurtleSense is successfully able to specifically detect motion within sea turtle nests over the entire course of incubation. This system allows for the identification of infertile nests and the detection of four predictable sequential developmental activity patterns in viable nests, including a hatch and posthatch period, the timing of which can be used to tightly predict hatchling emergence events almost to the day. TurtleSense provides a much better understanding about what is happening in the nest before emergence and allows for the generation of a theory of the mechanism that triggers mass emergence. Our results suggest that motion plays a large role in hatchling communication and that the timing of emergence events may be related to the cessation of movement within the nest. Current management of sea turtle nesting events is primarily driven by counting the number of days since the nest was laid, with further safeguards placed at the nest upon subsequent visual observation of depression or emergence events. Use of TurtleSense technology can impact nest management and conservation efforts, allowing organizations to use this motion data to more tightly predict emergence dates for sea turtle hatchlings and to use viability data to inform nest management decisions.