Sea turtle eggs aren’t always what they seem

Fake sea turtle eggs can help track down illegal traders without doing any harm to the real thing, a rather clever study has shown.

When researchers led by Helen Pheasey from the University of Kent, UK, placed 3D-printed and GPS-enabled decoy eggs into nests in Cosa Rica, they were able to track them from beach to end consumer.

“Our research showed that placing a decoy into a turtle nest did not damage the incubating embryos and that the decoys work,” she says.

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The interior of a decoy egg with visible GPS tracking mechanism. Credit: Helen Pheasey

The decoys, dubbed InvestEggator, were developed by the conservation organisation Paso Pacifico to address the illegal trade of endangered turtles in Central America, where eggs are smuggled from beaches and sold to restaurants and bars as a delicacy.

To see how well they’d work in practice, Pheasey and colleagues put the decoys in 101 nests on four beaches. A quarter of them were taken illegally, allowing the researchers to track eggs from five clutches, including two green turtle nests and three olive ridley nests.

One of the decoys made it close to a residential property before going silent. Another went two kilometres to a bar. One ended up 137 kilometres inland, spending two days in transit from the beach to a supermarket loading-bay and then on to a residential property.

The researchers assume the egg wasn’t sold at the market but was rather handed off there, from a trafficker to a salesperson. They also received anecdotal reports of cases where someone discovered the decoy.

Pheasey says the findings affirm their suspicions that most stolen eggs don’t leave the local area. There also are reports that most trade takes place close to the nesting beach.

“As trafficking is a more serious crime, those handover points are far more valuable from a law enforcement perspective than catching someone taking a nest,” she says.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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