“At the Caraplace, turtle hatchlings are raised for two to three years until they're of a size that you would see them in the wild,” Rebecca says. During this phase, the turtles grow up to approximately 40 centimetres long. “This is the phase in their lives which we call ‘the lost years’, because people usually don’t see turtles this small in the wild.”
“Sea turtles are very mysterious animals, and especially young turtles,” Rebecca says, adding that research so far has often focused more on adult turtles rather than on small juveniles.
One way to learn more about these creatures is by attaching satellite trackers to their carapace and analysing their movements. Rebecca says that attachment methods have to be specific to the size and species of turtle at hand, especially in the case of young hawksbill turtles. “This is because small juvenile hawksbills have a really bumpy shell,” she says.
Having a bumpy shell means that attaching satellite tracking devices for research purposes may be difficult. “We didn't want to put all this expensive tracking equipment on their carapace, send them out into the world, and then it would all just fall off,” Rebecca says.
So, Rebecca decided to find out how to attach a small satellite tracking device, which only weighs around 39 grams, on turtles that weighed around two to four kilograms, without making the turtles feel uncomfortable.
Tracking turtles without discomfort
Rebecca knew the importance of doing that in an ethical way, maintaining good welfare for the turtles, from previous research she had done on how to tell a happy turtle from an unhappy turtle. In this work, Rebecca examined what measures turtle rehabilitation centres had already done.
“I looked at turtle welfare in five domains: nutrition, physical health, environment, behaviour and mental state,” Rebecca says. “My main takeaway is that behaviour is actually one of the best ways to monitor welfare of turtles in rehabilitation settings. It's non-invasive, it's low cost, and it can be easily replicated.”
Rebecca also found that it is important to look at stress in turtles, which she then assessed during the replica tracker attachment study. While doing so, she found that real life turtles are not far from what is shown in the Disney movie, Finding Nemo.
“When watching Finding Nemo, you may think turtles are pretty chill,” Rebecca says. “I'd say that's accurate.” Luckily, Rebecca’s turtles didn’t mind having a replica of a satellite tracker attached to their carapace.