Inspired by espionage devices used in the TV shows ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Wire,’ a team of scientists designed fake sea turtle eggs that look and feel like the real thing, but contain a GPS tracking device.
These decoy eggs helped the scientists identify illegal trafficking routes in Costa Rica, where four species of sea turtles nest every year.
The team of researchers published a proof-of-concept paper on Monday in the journal Current Biology. They presented the results of an experiment in which they placed one decoy egg each into 101 sea turtle nests. One of the eggs traveled just 1 km from its initial placement, ending up at a local bar to be served as a delicacy and aphrodisiac, while another moved over 100 km from a beach to inland Costa Rica.
“It really seemed like most of the poaching was for local markets—you would eat the eggs in a bar or you'd chug it with a beer,” said Kim Williams-Guillen, a co-author of the study and conservation scientist with the nonprofit Paso Pacifico. “Then to have that one egg from this one pretty minor beach travel so far and so close to the capital city, it did surprise me.”
Williams-Guillen thought up the design for the decoy eggs for the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, a 2015 contest run by USAID. She recalled an episode of “Breaking Bad” where officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration place a GPS tracker on a barrel of chemicals that will be used to manufacture methamphetamines. She combined this concept with another from television—a tennis ball containing a listening device, used in an episode of “The Wire” to surveil a character dealing drugs.
“I think those two probably were in my subconscious, so as soon as I had the idea I was like, ‘Oh like in 'Breaking Bad,' but smaller like in 'The Wire,'’” Williams-Guillen said.
Their first prototype consisted of a GPS tracker embedded in a balloon filled with corn starch. When the team was named a finalist for the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, they used some of the prize money to experiment with 3D printing the shell. Williams-Guillen said that the most difficult part of the sea turtle egg to mimic was not its appearance, which is similar to a ping pong ball with an indent, but rather its consistency.
Because of their leathery exterior and fluid-filled interior, sea turtle eggs feel like stress balls, she said, and poachers rely on their sense of touch to judge the freshness of eggs when collecting them under the cover of darkness.
“It's sort of like when you're squishing avocados at the grocery store: you're not squeezing the heck out of it, but you're giving a tense squeeze,” Williams-Guillen said. “We needed something that was going to have some kind of give, some kind of squishiness to it.”
After they had fine-tuned the design and been named a winner of the tech challenge, Helen Pheasey, a conservation scientist who was completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the UK, reached out about the possibility of collaborating in Costa Rica.
Since the trial in Costa Rica, the decoy eggs have been deployed for similar purposes on beaches in French Guyana and South America. Additionally, the team is working with another researcher to adapt the technology to implant it into a shark fin, with the goal of tracking illegal shipments from Costa Rica to Asia.
Williams-Guillen said that the purpose of tracking the illegal trade of eggs was not to identify specific poachers, who are often poor and unable to find work because of substance abuse issues and a lack of regional job opportunities. Rather, they're trying to map the underground trade networks in order to stop trafficking from the top down.
“It's not that the police who were tracking the drug dealers in 'The Wire' wanted to know who the kids selling drugs on the street were,” she said. “You want to know who the higher-level people in the organization are because if you are able to interrupt them, that has a big disruptive effect on the network downstream.”