“In the Name of Science…”

By Melissa L’Heureux, Emily Swanson, Elissa Matheny and Marshall McCurties – aka “The Audio-Visual Crew”

Marshall, Emily, Elissa & Melissa in action
Marshall, Emily, Elissa & Melissa in action – Photo by Heather Barron

3/12/14

Last night, our group had our first successful experiment of behavioral modification. As a group, we were trying to see if we’d be able to manipulate the turtle’s path on its way back to the water following the nesting process.  We wanted to figure out if the turtles rely more on visual senses or auditory senses to find their way back to the ocean.

To perform our experiment, we put a dark sack over the turtle’s head to eliminate her sight after  she laid her eggs and started to position herself toward the water.  Instead of continuing toward the water

Our first attempt with a bandana for a blindfold - which ultimately failed, but led to using a cloth bag instead
Our first attempt with a bandana for a blindfold – which ultimately failed, but led to using a cloth bag instead

like we assumed she would do, she ended up spinning in two full counter-clockwise circles.

After five minutes, we put noise cancelling headphones on with prerecorded waves sounds in just one ear.  The turtle started to spin clockwise, in the direction of the ear which we were controlling the sounds level. After another five minutes, we changed which ear we were playing the wave sounds in. However, she still continued to spin in the same direction after we switched ears.

After 15 minutes of controlling her senses, we removed everything to see how long it would take for her to reorient herself with the water. She aimed her body toward the ocean within 1 minute and 40 seconds – a very short time,- and then continued into the water and we lost visual contact at 4 minutes and 30 seconds.

After seeing a Leatherback for the first time the night before, and due to how our first experiment went, we started to loose faith that we would walk away with any substantial data from this trip.

Students collecting data - Photo by Heather Barron
Students collecting data – Photo by Heather Barron

Underestimating exactly how massive these creatures are, we didn’t think it was possible to actually manipulate their behavior. Because of that, we were very excited to have such substantial data after tonight.

It was also really inspiring to work with John, one of the Nature Seekers guide, on this experiment.  After chatting with him quite extensively throughout the evening, it was fun to see how driven he was to learn about Leatherbacks. We asked him to share his thoughts with us after the experiment was complete.  He told us he didn’t expect anything to happen, but after seeing the results he had so many questions.  He was hoping to work solely with our group for the rest of the trip to see how our future experiments go.

All in all, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to use this as an initiation into the world of science!

Melissa thanks the turtle for helping us learn more her and her species
Melissa thanks the turtle for helping us learn more her and her species