Computer-toting turtles seem like something out of a Disney movie. But two groups of researchers are working together to equip snapping turtles with lightweight, solar-powered devices that record, store and transmit information wirelessly.

It's the Latest Thing in Wireless

Data gathered from the TurtleNet project will be used to map where and how the turtles move, to help protect their habitats.

"A lot of what we worry about is encroachment of development and whether this leads to the decline of turtles. Most if not all turtle species are suffering to some extent," said computer scientist Mark Corner, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and project leader on the TurtleNet project.

Animal tracking is a key component of understanding the behavior of a species. But until recently, biologists have been limited to technology such as radio frequency collars. After the device is attached to the animal, the scientist tracks it using a radio receiver.

But this is a labor-intensive, time-consuming ordeal. A biologist can spend hours or days traipsing through the woods or sloshing through swamps trying to locate a collar’s signal. And, if the animal is on the move, it can take even more time.

The TurtleNet technology is more flexible and doesn’t require as much field time.

It consists of a lightweight computer the size of a roll of quarters, a short-distance radio transmitter, sensors, a GPS receiver, and a half a megabyte of storage space all powered by a lithium-ion battery. A postcard-sized solar panel converts sunlight into power for the battery.
Once fastened with glue to the shell of a snapper, the node does its thing for four or five months before it is retrieved by a biologist. During those months, the sensors and GPS take periodic readings about the reptile’s location and body temperature and save the information on a storage device similar to a thumb drive.

About every 10 minutes, the node sends out a short-range signal announcing its presence. If the turtle is close to a base station, its computer downloads any saved data.

If the snapper comes into range with a fellow reptile, the computers will exchange information, such as how frequently they pass by the base station.

Eventually the accumulated data makes its way back to the base station, turtle by turtle.

"The beauty with this kind of technology is that people don’t need to physically be there. Now you removed one more element that could change the animals’ behavior," said Chris Sadler, who worked as the lead software engineer on a similar project at Princeton University, called ZebraNet.

With the information gathered, biologists can create a map about where and how frequently turtles move around. Such a map could ultimately be used to plan roads that don’t interrupt migration routes, for example, or to build an overpass over routes well traveled.

The challenge, said Sadler, is developing a system that is unobtrusive and yet robust enough to withstand the natural elements.

"From a biology standpoint, you have to design a package that doesn’t affect the animal’s movement or puts the animals at risk," said Sadler. And turtles like water.

Corner and his team will be putting their system to the test in the next few weeks, as they plan to deploy about 15 turtle nodes along the Deerfield River in Western Massachusetts. Slow and steady, the turtles will gather critical information that could help save their race.

Via: Discovery Channel