‘Frankenturtles’ released into the Chesapeake Bay by VIMS researchers

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Gloucester Point, Va. (WTKR) - Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are studying sea turtle mortality in an effort to protect living turtles from harm by releasing "Frankenturtles" into the Chesapeake Bay.

Assistant Professor David Kaplan and graduate student Bianca Santos are trying to pinpoint where hundreds of dead loggerhead sea turtles that wash up on beaches of the Chesapeake Bay ever year may have died.

They hope that information will help them figure out likely causes of sea turtle death and help map out "safe zones" for the turtles.

The approach may strike some as morbid. Dead sea turtles are obtained from the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center's Stranding Response Program and their inner organs are replaced with buoyant Styrofoam.

The shells of the turtles are then put back together with zip ties and GPS units are attached to track them as winds and currents disperse them from the release location.

“It might seem sort of gross, but it’s a good way to reuse a dead turtle that would otherwise be buried,” Kaplan commented. “And hopefully, the deployment of our two Frankenturtles will ultimately help lower the number of turtle deaths in the future.”

Sea turtles initially sink after dying, but they quickly float back to the surface thanks to gases released by decomposing tissues.

“Our plan is to deploy the drifters on several different occasions—under a variety of wind and wave conditions—and in locations where mortality events could occur during the spring peak in strandings,” Santos said. “We’ll then use the separation rate between our bucket drifters, which closely track water movement, and our turtle carcasses to determine the amount of wind forcing to apply to simulated carcasses in our computer model.”

One of the Frankenturtles has the remains of a 15-20 year old loggerhead that was killed when it was hit by a boat.

The second is a younger turtle whose cause of deaths is unknown. They are both heavy, with the larger one weighing in at 150 pounds, while the smaller one weighs 70 pounds.

“If our model can accurately simulate how winds and currents act on a dead sea turtle, we should be able to backtrack from a stranding site to the place where the turtle likely died,” Santos explained. “By knowing the ‘where,’” she adds, “we can better look at the ‘why.’"

Between 100 and 300 loggerhead sea turtles die in the Chesapeake Bay every year.

You can track the motion of the drifters in real-time by clicking here.