Researchers develop 3D printed turtle egg decoys to track and prevent illegal trade in Costa Rica 

Researchers from the University of Kent and conservation organisation Paso Pacifico have developed a novel method of preventing the illegal theft and trade of sea turtle eggs in Costa Rica. 

The crime-fighting ecologist team designed and 3D printed a set of ‘decoy eggs’ with embedded GPS trackers, and managed to hide them within 101 Costa Rican bird nests undetected. When the fake eggs, nicknamed ‘InvestEggators’ were stolen, the research team were able to track the illegal traders, and identify potential routes towards their intervention. 

According to the lead researcher on the project Helen Pheasey, the successful trial showed that the technology could be a useful tool for local law enforcement in future: “We showed that it was possible to track illegally removed eggs from the beach to the end consumer,” said Pheasey. 

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

Tackling wildlife deterioration in Costa Rica 

As an international enterprise, illegal wildlife trading is estimated to be worth anywhere between $8 billion and $25 billion a year, making it an extremely lucrative business. In order for local law enforcement to be proactive, and prevent the trafficking of exotic and endangered animals, identifying the routes used consistently by traders is vital. 

If repeat offenders can be prosecuted, and have their supply lines cut, then according to the researchers at least, the whole industry can be tackled more effectively. Costa Rica in particular, has seen wildlife trafficking become epidemic in recent years, and turtle eggs are often smuggled into bars and restaurants, where they’re consumed as a delicacy. 

In an effort to tackle this biodiversity threat, Kim Williams-Guillen, a scientist at Paso Pacifico, came up with the idea of creating fake eggs. The researcher was reportedly inspired by her favorite TV shows Breaking Bad and The Wire. In the former, a GPS device is hidden inside a tank of chemicals, while in the latter, an audio device is concealed within a tennis ball. 

By combining the two concepts, Williams-Guillen conjured up the original blueprint for the InvestEggator egg decoy devices used by the team in their investigation. 

The ‘InvestEggator’ tracking devices in action

Utilizing 3D printing, the research team were able to fabricate a number of fake eggs with an embedded transmitter, while maintaining a spongey, rubbery texture, and remaining as lifelike as possible. In an attempt to test the efficacy and tracking capabilities of their dummies, a total of 101 decoys were then hidden by the scientists among the real eggs of turtles along the Costa Rican coast. 

A total of 25 fakes were stolen, and their integrated tracking devices were programmed to emit a signal once an hour. Although not all of the experimental egg clones worked successfully, the team did manage to identify five smuggling tracks, and the most detailed of these covered an entire trade chain totalling 137 km. 

In another case, the decoy stopped responding after eleven days, and it was traced to the coastal town of Cariari, an area which was just 43 km from the beach it was planted on. The researchers were ultimately sent photos of the poached egg, as well as information around the identity of its traders, which could be used in a genuine case of theft, to prosecute the guilty parties. 

A total of 25 of the team’s false eggs were stolen, and five of them provided smuggling tracks for the scientists to follow. Photo via Paso Pacifico.

“Knowing that a high proportion of eggs remain in the local area helps us target our conservation efforts,” explained Pheasey. “We can now focus on raising awareness in the local communities and direct law enforcement to this local issue. It also means we know where the consumers are, which assists us in focusing demand reduction campaigns.”

Despite the proven efficacy of five of the eggs, six of the others failed to deceive their thieves, and they were discarded on the beach straight away. Of those left in untouched nests, another 32 percent of these malfunctioned due to either excessive moisture caused by their proximity to the sea, or the movements of their mother turtle. 

As a result, Pheasey expressed hope that the devices could be adapted to protect other species as well, but acknowledged that further funding would be needed to achieve any further advances in the technology.

According to Pheasey: “A multi-pronged conservation approach that uses education, building better economic opportunities, and enforcement” will be needed to put an end to egg poaching once and for all. 

Additive animal preservation devices 

Although fabricated turtle eggs could well represent a novel application of 3D printing, the technology itself has also been applied in other areas of wildlife conservation. 

Engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have built a 3D printed sloth robot which has been nicknamed ‘slothbot.’ The energy-efficient robotic mammal is currently hanging from the trees above Atlanta Botanical Garden, where it monitors the animals, plants, and the environment below

Elsewhere, engineering company Scheurer Swiss GmbH has worked with students from ETH Zurich to 3D print parts for their “Rowesys” automated weeding system. The compact weed killing bot has been designed as a sustainable alternative to the use of herbicides in agricultural farming.

Following a nautical theme, a team from the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, have recently 3D printed a walking starfish-shaped soft robot. The starfish’s limbs act like tendons in a biomechanical system, and the scientists were able to program them to perform precise movements. 

The researchers’ findings are detailed in their paper titled “Using GPS-enabled decoy turtle eggs to track illegal trade.” The study was co-authored by Helen Pheasey, David L. Roberts, Daniela Rojas-Cañizales, Carmen Mejías-Balsalobre, Richard A. Griffiths and Kim Williams-Guillen. 

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Featured image shows one of the research team’s 3D printed turtle eggs which has been cracked open. Photo via Paso Pacifico.