By Veronica Inveen
Jun 11, 2020
The hypnotic video of 64,000 endangered green sea turtles looking like so many Christmas lights on an undulating turquoise tree (or the world’s largest pair of critter shorts) is more than a great ad for protecting the Great Barrier Reef. It’s further evidence that drones will inherit the earth.
Raine Island, in super-far north Queensland, is the world’s largest green turtle rookery. But just how many of everyone’s favorite save-the-ocean icon lay their eggs there? Figuring out how to count these migrating mamas turned out to be the $64,000 question.
Researchers from the Queensland Department of Environment and Science use non-toxic, soluble white paint to mark turtles nesting on the beach at night. In the past, they then waited for those turtles to head back into the sea and, from a boat in the middle of the bale, visually counted the ratio of painted to unpainted ones to calculate the total of those who swim hundreds of kilometers to Raine Island each year.
The attention-catching white stripes drew eyes away from the unpainted turtles, lead researcher Dr. Andrew Dunstan said, leading the team to underestimate their numbers—and those overall.
Mechanizing the process drastically reduced observer bias. Researchers shot GoPros underwater and flew drones overhead, then analyzed the footage frame by frame. “We’re finding 1.73 times as many turtles with the drone and as we do when we directly compare with observer counts,” Dunstan told CNN.
Now that the Raine Island Recovery Project has an accurate turtle tally, they can better track and protect them, and shore up the nesting beaches. These heroes in a half-shell deserve it.