Sea Turtle Tracking App Created by Loma Linda Researchers

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June 9, 2016

Biology professor Stephen Dunbar and PhD student Dustin Baumbach talk about the app they developed, and how they hope to track individual sea turtles around the world using image recognition software and pictures taken by citizen-researchers. They also talk about why we need to spend our time and energy caring for creatures and the environment instead of trying to prove the creation story.

Question: You have created a sea turtle-tracking app, which went live this April. Why do sea turtles need their own app?

Dustin: The app is called TURT [Turtles Uniting Researchers and Tourists]. Last summer we started creating a web map, so that dive tourists could go online and add sightings of sea turtles, giving us a better picture of where they travel. But then we started thinking that not all dive tourists would go back to their computers and log sea turtle sightings. So then we thought a mobile app might make it easier for dive tourists to log the sightings. An app also has global potential -- not just for one specific location. So anyone anywhere in the world can log a sighting: from Peru to Japan to Thailand to Honduras.

Are people logging any sightings?

Dustin: We have several people who have started using the app, but it seems like most people are still just testing it. The sea turtle research season hasn’t really started. We are hoping that during June and July (the summer vacation season) more people will start using the app.

How are you letting people know about the app?

Stephen: We are sending info about the app to dive operators around the world. We have been looking online for dive shops -- so far we have been focusing on the Caribbean, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Using an Excel spreadsheet we are making lists of dive companies, and then we are firing off an email form letter to all of them with info about the app.

We are expecting those shops will share the information with their customers.  We have had a pretty good response so far.

How many dive shops have you contacted to date?

Dustin: We have sent emails to about 240 so far, mainly throughout the Caribbean, in Thailand, and in Malaysia. Aruba and the Antilles. We are just starting another list for Malaysia, and Indonesia, Australia, Africa, and the South Pacific regions. And we will keep going around the world.

We have also sent information about our app out through the sea turtle networks, which we are very familiar with.

Stephen: And it’s important to note that the app is not only for divers. Tourists might go and sit on a beach or go snorkeling. They may see a turtle come up to bask in the sun. Someone might photograph a turtle just resting on a beach.

And then there are tourist interactions at sea turtle nesting beaches. And speaking of nesting, we are hoping that nesting events can be recorded on this app as well. Lots of people go to Costa Rica or other places to get involved with nesting tourism.

Is the app easy to use for different languages?

Dustin: We haven’t really thought about that issue yet. But we are hoping to deal with that in the future.

Stephen: The really interesting thing about the app is the potential for photo identification of specific, individual turtles. Using that software, over the years we can track different individuals in different places.

One of the things I am hoping will come out of this is that we will develop a global sea turtle database. So when you upload a photo of an individual turtle from, say, the Bahamas, you as the user would have this photo search through the database and return a little history of the turtle to you. So that specific turtle might have been on a different island, or spotted in a different country. All that history would be returned to you when you log a turtle and it’s picture.

You won’t have all the information about sightings of turtles around the world -- just info about the turtle you have logged.

So it will use image recognition software?

Stephen: Yes, we are working with a company called IBEIS (Image Based Ecological Information System), which has done amazing work with zebras, for example. The zebra’s stripes make each animal unique, and the computer system can learn to identify specific animals.

IBEIS looks at the pixel relationships between millions of pixels. So we are working with them to develop a variant of their zebra ID system for turtles.

Our database will also house all kinds of other data. But the more photos and information people upload, the smarter the system will be.

This has been my dream since I started getting into photo identification with turtles, five or six years ago. I have always wanted to be able to upload a picture, and be sent a history of that turtle.

So the more people involved, the better.

Stephen: This app lets people really get involved -- this is what’s called citizen science. It’s for anybody interested in turtles and conserving them. Everybody can contribute information. And then those people will get something back.

You won’t have access to all the information people log. But what we have on our end is a global map. If you sight a turtle in Hawaii, right away we get a point on our map, and we researchers can see where people are sighting turtles. We can start identifying trends. But it really changes the game when we can identify an individual.

The app is a great tool to add into that whole resource collection.

Dustin: Hopefully within the next month or two, the app will be able to support multiple photos. Then people will be able to upload many photos of one turtle. (Right now you can upload just one photo.)

Stephen: Also, we are working on a version of this same app for researchers. That more specialized app will have many more fields; researchers will be able to add information about having taken blood samples, tag numbers, and other information that tourists wouldn’t have.

What is wrong with the old method of just tagging the turtle?

Stephen: There are two main issues. Any time you tag an animal, there are certain implications to that interaction. First, you have to capture the animal, and may need to pierce the skin. In turtles we put a little metal tag on the flipper. As far as we know it doesn’t cause pain, and we don’t see any adverse reaction, but we don’t actually know how much stress the tagging causes them. And that is the case when tagging any kind of animal. You may be changing some of its behaviour. Then, of course, to re-identify an animal, you have to recapture it to read the tag, etc.

The other issue: animals very often lose their tags. As small turtles grow up they often lose their tags. When you recapture that turtle, you have lost all the data on the animal.

In using photo identification, we still have to capture the turtle initially to take blood, weight, and measurements. But months later, if we are able to identify that turtle by a photo, we don’t necessarily have to recapture the animal.

Now there is still a need for tagging the turtles. It is best to have a positive ID, and theoretically we could have a mismatch with the photo ID. But we see the day coming when we may not need to use flipper tags at all anymore. It’s really exciting to look toward that advancement.

How long did it take to develop the app, from idea to completion? Have you made apps before?

Dustin: From the basic web map we started with, it took about 9 to 10 months.

I have never made an app before. I fiddled around with some computer science in undergrad at Pacific Union College, but realized I wasn’t picking up the code as quickly as I should be, so dropped it as a minor.

But a lot of the work creating the turtle app was just working the ESRI mapping services. I went through the template of code to see how it was all arranged, and organized, and how I could manipulate the data to what we needed.

Stephen: Before the app was launched, we had various ideas, tried different things -- then Dustin would go away and make it happen. For instance, I would say, let’s try symbols for each species, and Dustin would have it done. Recently we put in links and little descriptions of each species for people to see. The app links to the ProTECTOR Inc. website so people can find out more about the species.

How did you come up with the idea for the app?

Stephen: It started with the map that Dustin developed in Honduras. First it was just a printout. Then we thought it would be cool to have a computer-based map we could put the info into. We were developing that map to give to the dive shops. Then right away we started thinking how cool it would be if it were mobile, and people anywhere around the world could add their info. Dustin said he would play around and see what he came up with. We came up with many iterations to figure out what might work.

You have been studying sea turtles off the coast of Honduras for a long time. How long? Why Honduras?

Stephen: This is the start of my tenth year down there. I go several times a year, sometimes during the March spring break, but mostly between June and October. I go three to four times a year, and spend a week to eight weeks at a time. In the summer, my graduate students go. Dustin is a PhD student, and Marsha Wright is also a PhD student. We have an intern program as well, and interns and volunteers also go. Some come from other Adventist colleges, and there are also some non-Adventists.

I first went in 2004, when someone here at Loma Linda who had been born to missionary parents in Honduras, took me there and introduced me to some non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

I had only started here at Loma Linda in 2002, so that was quite early on.

I got a few contracts with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to do some rapid assessments for lobster and conch off the coast of Honduras. I happened to organize to dive with a resort owner who was also Canadian like me, and new to Roatan. Some local fisherman brought him dead sea turtles they were selling, so he could serve the meat in the resort’s restaurant. He told them not to bring him dead turtles, but that he would pay for live turtles.

He wanted to get into conservation, so I started weighing, measuring, and tagging the turtles before releasing them. The fishermen would catch them again, and we would pay them again.

So this was a good start to getting a project up and running. Now we have done projects all around the area, and have various projects running around the country.

How would you say that your work complements your Adventist beliefs?

Stephen: I think that we as a church have not put a strong enough emphasis on our responsibility as stewards of creation. We spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to essentially uphold the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, and I strongly believe in those accounts. But they are accounts of the past. I feel that we should be doing a much better job of caring for creation in the present.

While we tend to look both back to the point of creation and forward to the point of re-creation, we are not very strongly engaged in caring for creation in the present. That has been a disappointment to me. I think we need to do much more to be part of the solution to problems on the planet here and now.

As an example: there is now a great solution to the problem of plastic cutlery. Have you heard of edible forks and spoons? A guy in India makes them out of millet. They are very tough and last for several hours in hot liquid. What a fantastic way to start getting rid of plastic.

Now a guy in Florida has come up with edible beer can rings. Animals in the ocean can safely eat them!

I would like us as Adventists to get more involved in those kinds of solutions -- instead of spending our time trying to find ways to prove the creation account.

I am a strong believer in those accounts but I feel as though trying to come up with stronger arguments to support them rather than working to find problems we are facing today is an abdication of our responsibility as caretakers of creation. This is a real passion of mine.

I edited a book called Entrusted: Christians in Environmental Care which deals with many of these issues. It is the first Adventist book that deals with questions of the environment. All the essays included are written by Adventists, from ethicists to architects to conservationists. One chapter talks about how to incorporate environmentally friendly activities with your family in your own home. Another talks about building urban spaces according to a biblical model.

Are there other Adventists doing this sort of ecological work?

Yes, there are a few. There are several Adventist biologists doing conservation work. There are very few doing marine research -- probably about five or six of us marine biologists actively doing research. One colleague, Dr. William Hayes, works on iguana and bird species in the Bahamas and on rattlesnake species here in California. I have a few colleagues at La Sierra, Andrews, and Walla Walla who also work on marine conservation research.

What are your future plans, Dustin?

Dustin: I am hoping to go into teaching at a university level. It would be nice to teach in an Adventist setting, but if that doesn’t happen, so be it.

And I still have a lot of work I’d like to do with the app: photo identification, the capability to upload multiple photos, and hopefully create the researcher app within the next year. We also hope to figure out how to make these apps available offline as well.

What is next for your turtle research, Stephen? Do you have other interesting projects in the pipeline?

Stephen: I’m heading down to Honduras in a little less than a month. Dustin and Marsha will be there from June to September. I’m also looking at the potential to do sea turtle work in Thailand. And then of course looking for ways to get the new app into more hands.

And I am always trying to attract more interns and students into this great field of marine biology.

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