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Turtles lug wireless gadgets to log their whereabouts

The waterproof computers might keep snappers off an endangered list.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 5, 2007


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DEERFIELD, Mass. - From the way he thrashed his head, kicked and tried to make a getaway, M16 made it clear he didn't like human contact. But the researchers wrangling with him could be helping to save his species.

After his best efforts to escape the clutches of two scientists from the University of Massachusetts and get back to the swamp he was just lifted from failed, the 40-pound snapping turtle gave up and let Mike Jones and Matt Garber do their jobs.

Using a combination of orthodontic cement and duct tape, the students attached a postcard-sized waterproof computer to the turtle's shell. After christening the 16th male turtle he found in the area as "M16, " Jones scribbled some information about the turtle's shell markings into a field book and set the snapper free.

Knowing where M16 goes could help scientists protect him.

In an experiment taking place along the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts, two otherwise unrelated groups of researchers are working together: computer engineers like Garber who are testing a new wireless communication network, and biologists like Jones who are tracking snapping turtles, a species they worry may be headed for decline as land development shrinks their habitat.

The idea behind the technology is to create a network of constantly moving devices that record and store information, transmit data from one device to another, then relay all the saved information to a central location while running on self-charging batteries.

"A lot of the existing technology works great as long as you're not moving around and you have stable networks and people who could recharge batteries, " said Jacob Sorber, who designed the network he calls TurtleNet.

The solar-powered computers are light enough so they don't weigh the turtles down, and they don't interrupt mating habits, Jones said.

Stuck to the shells of turtles found near the swamp, the gadgets will take periodic readings of the reptiles' location and body temperature. When one computer-carrying snapper gets within a tenth-of-a-mile of another, the machines swap information.

Working like a cell phone sending a text message, the base station zaps the data to the campus about 15 miles away, where biologists are charting each turtle's whereabouts. "We're trying to get a better idea of their range, the routes they take and where they hibernate, " said Jones. "If you have that information for a good number of turtles, you can predict what their patterns will be."

Land development and an increase in natural predators has landed seven of Massachusetts' 10 freshwater turtle species on the state's endangered species list.

[Last modified July 5, 2007, 23:33:24]


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