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Where Sea Turtles and Open Source Meet

How open source technologies could dramatically reduce the cost of tagging green sea turtles

I often like to describe the experience of working with green sea turtles (chelonia mydas) to that of working with modern day dinosaurs. A reptile – the green sea turtle’s ancestors evolved on land and returned to sea over 140 million year ago, having witnessed both the evolution and extinction of dinosaurs – yet today they are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Threats include habitat destruction and the loss of their nesting beaches, plastic pollution in the ocean (plastic bags can be mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles and are responsible for a great number of deaths) and bycatch through commercial fishing practices.

I see a future where open source technologies and the sharing of knowledge will revolutionize the monitoring of species globally

As a Technical Specialist within the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Conservation Technology Unit, it’s my job to research and understand how the latest technological advances can be utilised to better protect and conserve species and their habitats globally. I am a firm believer in the implementation of open source technologies and an advocate of knowledge sharing to drive forward open solutions to achieve this.In the case of the green sea turtle, we recently embarked on a unique project to dramatically reduce the cost of tagging green sea turtles and acquire spatial and behavioural data using open source principles and technologies for the Principe Trust. The Trust’s goal is to promote the sustainable development of Principe island through research into nature conservation, tropical agriculture and education. Their turtle monitoring program actively patrols and protects the many beaches used by sea turtles across the island and they wanted to understand the movement of nesting turtles to better protect their important marine habitats.

Our plan was to deploy base stations on a selected nesting beach to collect spatial data from returning sea turtles as efficiently and as cost effectively as possible.

It’s traditionally expensive to tag sea turtles and collect spatial data. You need a robust waterproof enclosure capable of protecting the electrical components inside at great depths, satellite connectivity and advances such as salt water switch triggers and fast GPS acquisitions to achieve a GPS lock within seconds when the sea turtles come up to the surface to take a breath. Commercial tags cost in excess of $2,000, and although well suited for the job and used extensively, we wanted to explore how new advances in open source manufacturing and technologies could achieve the same results, but at a dramatically reduced cost.To do this, we worked with Luka Mustafa, a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and the founder of Inštitut IRNAS Rače. Luka’s team is pushing forward the boundaries of open source hardware development and design, having developed open tools such as the Troublemaker and the GoodEnoughCNC. They were tasked with the challenge of creating an enclosure to host a low cost Mataki tag and AX3 accelerometer. By utilising these open tools, we were able to design and 3D print a prototype enclosure at a fraction of the cost when compared to typical commercial prototyping.

The Process

1. An open Troublemaker 3D printer was utilised to print and evaluate our initial enclosure design. Physically printing our design ensured that we could load the tag with our payload of electronics to confirm that they could be positioned correctly and to evaluate the design.

Mataki Turtle Tag Casing Part 1

2. A rubber base plate was cut and attached to assess the optimum drilling positions and base plate size. The tag was designed to be placed upon a base plate, that was then attached to the sea turtle using an epoxy solution – hence the tag’s code name “the pit stop tag.”

Mataki Turtle Tag Casing Part 2

3. The completed 3D printed enclosure was taken to a sealant specialist to evaluate the use of polyurethane to form a seal between the acrylic lid and the tag’s base.

Mataki Turtle Tag Casing Part 2

4. The polyurethane seal was devised by Tesnila Bogadi by pouring a liquid solution directly onto a thin aluminum plate and allowing it to cool before being cut to size and used to create each individual tag.

Mataki Turtle Tag Seal for Casing

5. A completed tag with a connecting base plate can be seen in this CAD render. Later, we extended the footprint of the base plate so it was flush with the tag above to reduce the chance of potentially snagging on discarded fishing line when at sea.

Mataki Turtle Tag Casing Part 5

The tags hold a Mataki, developed by Dr Robin Freeman of the Institute of Zoology at ZSL, which is capable of transmitting logged data wirelessly via radio to Mataki base stations within proximity. We wanted to place base stations on the known nesting beaches, tag the turtles with the new low cost tag and automagically acquire the logged data recorded by the Mataki when they returned to their nesting beaches. We nicknamed the tag the “Pit stop tag” as we designed it to be removable via a base plate, enabling researchers and beach guards to “swap” a tag out and replace it with a freshly charged tag without needing to apply fresh epoxy to attach and fix the tag in position.

Deploying the finished tag on a green sea turtle.

We trialled the tag in January (2016) together with researchers from the University of Exeter. Green sea turtles will lay clutches of eggs 4 – 5 times every 10 – 14 days, so we tagged a turtle on its third clutch (knowing that it was loyal to the beach) and waited patiently for it to return. When it did, we were delighted to successfully communicate with the tag and download its logged data. The tag’s enclosure costs ~$50 and the internal electronics $200, which is a dramatic cost reduction. Our next challenge is to explore and include an open source approach to rapid GPS acquisition and include a salt water switch to acquire reliable GPS locks when the turtles surface at sea.

Preparing the Mataki tags as payloads in the Pit Stop Tags.

We deployed 5 base stations to cover the entirety of the nesting beach. Each base station could pick up a returning sea turtle at up to 400 – 500m (LOS) once the turtle starts its haul from the water.

Each base station is powered by a 6 watt solar panel and is capable of communicating with a returning Pit Stop Tag at up to 400 – 500m away (868mhz)

Five base stations covered the entirety of the nesting beach.

I see a future where open source technologies and the sharing of knowledge will revolutionize the monitoring of species. Through the introduction of affordable and effective open solutions that are accessible to all, we can better collect, understand and analyse data, and importantly, act upon the knowledge acquired to make informed conservation decisions and ultimately protect and conserve endangered species such as the remarkable green sea turtle.

About the Author

Alasdair Davies is the Technical Specialist with Conservation Technology Unit, Zoological Society of London. He has over 10 years experience solving conservation challenges in the field through the implementation of viable technologies. His extensive knowledge in wireless & satellite connectivity helped to launch Instant Detect, a satellite connected alarm system for protected areas.  As an advocate of open source hardware and software, Alasdair sees a future where open source technologies and the sharing of knowledge will revolutionize the monitoring of species globally.

Photographs by Alasdair Davies.

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Minecraft: We Are the Rangers

Minecraft on the African savannah

Alasdair Davies

Alasdair Davies

Alastair Davies is a tech consultant with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). He’s been working for several years on various initiatives to educate the public and help raise awareness of endangered species, poaching, and conservation efforts around the globe. One of those projects is Instant Wild, a popular crowdsourcing app used to identify animals captured by camera traps in remote locations around the globe. He recently sent me this update. 

We wanted to reach out to new young audiences and get them excited about camera trapping and monitoring wildlife. Over 60% of the Instant Wild audience are over 30, so it was a space we wanted to fill—even more so as young people appreciating wildlife and understanding environmental change and sustainability is incredibly important.

Minecraft Ranger

Minecraft Ranger

So… we used Minecraft! (40 million players globally)

116 volunteer Minecraft players spent the last 12 months recreating an African wildlife conservancy map and added wildlife (elephants, rhinos, etc.) and actual camera traps to the game. Here’s someone playing the map and finding a camera trap, and here are people having a first play, rescuing pangolins from poachers. Read more…

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The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge

The Best and Brightest Compete to Stop Illegal Wildlife Traffic

Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Also known as the Scaly Anteater, it actually walks on its hind feet. It uses its front feet for balance. It is a very rare sight to see since it is primarily nocturnal and is hunted for its scales (for traditional Chinese medicine). Photo by David Brossard. CC-by-sa/2.0/

Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Its scales are prized in traditional Chinese medicine.
Photo by David Brossard. Flickr: CC-by-sa/2.0

Wildlife trafficking is pushing many animals closer to extinction, threatening the livelihoods of people who rely on ecotourism, and is responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000 rangers in the last decade. It’s not just elephants, rhinos, and tigers: worldwide consumer demand has pushed market prices for all kinds of animals and animal parts to record levels for exotic pets, trophies, luxury items and souvenirs, religious and cultural items, food, and traditional medicines.

This year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in conjunction with the U.S. Global Development Lab, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC created an incentive for science and tech communities to develop new and innovative ways to combat wildlife trafficking. The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge is hoping to find new and innovative solutions for four main issues:

  • Understanding and shutting down trafficking routes
  • Improving forensic tools and data gathering to build strong criminal cases
  • Reducing consumer demand for illegal wildlife products
  • Combatting corruption along the illegal wildlife supply chain

By the end of the year, the Challenge will award prize packages of $10,000 plus technical assistance, networking support, and recognition to further the proposed solutions. Prize winners will also have the chance to win a Grand Prize of $500,000. Read more…

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Birding goes hi-tech with eBird

Birders channel Audubon, with keystrokes instead of brushstrokes

Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon

John James Audubon: Passenger Pigeons

Forget the stereotype of introverted birders with binoculars perpetually around their necks and floppy hats crowning their heads. Instead, think of serious naturalists and ornithologists in the spirit of John James Audubon in the 21st century. Today amateur and professional birders around the world are using to record their findings and observations in a database that is being used by researchers and conservation organizations to better understand biodiversity and support the global biodiversity information community.

Birds are far more than a beautiful addition to our natural world. They are critical links to the ecosystem as agents of dispersal, biological controls, and perhaps most importantly, bio-indicators.

eBird was launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, “on behalf of the birding community to provide a rich and rapidly growing database of bird sightings worldwide.”  In the eBird mobile app, they note: “Many birders use eBird to keep track of their life lists, share their sightings with other birders, and keep their records safely backed-up. Scientists use these observations to explore patterns of bird distribution and abundance, and to better conserve birds and biodiversity.” Read more…

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How Cecil lived.

Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion by Daughter#3 (Cecil) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone’s heard the story of how Cecil the lion died. Technology enables us to understand how he lived.

From 2008 until his death last week, Cecil wore a satellite-tracked radio collar. David Macdonald and Andy Loveridge of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of Oxford University monitored Cecil’s movements and got an intimate look at what it’s like to be a male lion in the wild.

They’ve just published a history of Cecil’s life from the time he was first collared in 2008. According to Andy Loveridge, “…lion society makes ‘Game of Thrones’ look tame…” (And the story of how Cecil and his pal Jericho became allies rivals just about any plot written by Shakespeare.) Read more…

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Navigating by the Earth’s Magnetic Field

Migrating geese, sea turtles, wolves—and worms—find their way.  And for the first time scientists think they know how.


Photo from

A team of scientists and engineers at the University of Texas at Austin has identified the first sensor of the Earth’s magnetic field in an animal, in the brain of a tiny worm. The sensor, found in worms called C. elegans, is a microscopic structure at the end of a neuron, and looks like a nano-scale TV antenna. The worms use it to figure out which way is down, as they scavenge for food.

This AFD neuron was already known to sense carbon dioxide levels, humidity, and temperature, all very handy things to know if you’re a worm.

The discovery came about as the researchers noted that C. elegans in gelatin-filled tubes moved in the direction that the worms believed was down. When they tested this phenomenon in their lab with C. elegans from various places on the globe, they observed that all of the worms didn’t move down—in fact, Australian worms moved up. Each of the worms moved at a precise angle to the magnetic field that would have corresponded to down if they had been in their local environments. Each worm’s magnetic field sensor system is apparently finely tuned to where it lives.

When the researchers altered the magnetic field around the worms, they noted that the worms changed direction to their new “down.” Worms that were genetically engineered without the AFD neuron weren’t able to orient themselves up or down.

The researchers believe that other animals probably have similar sensors, given similarities in brain structure across species. (One of the scientists has suggested that it might be possible to manage agricultural pests by manipulating magnetic fields. I find myself wondering what the unintended consequences of that will be.)

The research was published in the journal eLife in June.

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Bad eggs

Reed warbler feeding cuckoo chick

A reed warbler feeding a “brood parasite” common cuckoo chick. Photo by Harald Olsen, via Wikimedia

For decades, researchers have been trying to figure out how birds identify and reject the eggs that other birds, known as “brood parasites,” sometimes sneak into their nests. These rogue birds don’t build their own nests, they “dump and drive”—they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which then may incubate and raise the imposter chicks, often at the expense of their own.

The brood parasite species include cuckoos, cowbirds, black-headed ducks, indigobirds, whydahs, and honeyguides.

This evolutionary battle between host species and brood parasites goes beyond just dropping eggs off in a random nest to hatch and mature. The imposter eggs that most closely mimic the host eggs are more likely to endure, so brood parasites learn which species’ nests to impose on. And, over time, as it turns out, host species learn to identify imposter eggs, which they then reject. So the brood parasites start producing eggs that look even more like the host species’ eggs. And so on.  Read more…