Swimsuits for sea turtles

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The study collected turtle feces using a special swimsuit(Credit: University of Queensland)

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If you're wondering what the best dressed sea turtles are wearing at the beach this season, then the University of Queensland (UQ) has the answer. As part of a study to find the foraging areas of endangered loggerhead turtles, researchers there designed a bespoke swimsuit for the 120 kg (264 lb) animals that acts as a harness for a "giant nappy" to collect fecal samples.

The chelonian swimsuits were created by PhD student Owen Coffee and researcher Carmen da Silva at the UQ’s School of Biological Science. They were studying six loggerhead sea turtles in seawater tanks at UQ’s Moreton Bay Research Station, but were having trouble collecting fecal samples.

Feces are of great importance in not only determining the health of an animal, but also provides clues as to its diet and feeding grounds. Unfortunately, at sea, it's next to impossible to collect samples from something as large and powerful as a loggerhead and even in captivity the discharge quickly dilutes and disperses.

"[It] was challenging to collect the entire fecal sample once it dispersed into the water," says Coffee. "So we developed a flexible funnel anchored to the shell, to fit over the turtle’s tail. But this was not a good answer either. Because the animals are so large, it was difficult to keep the devices in place."

The answer came from previous research on sea turtle hatchlings. To learn how the baby turtles see, scientists created tiny, snug swimsuits for them with colorful patterns. Coffee took secondhand sunshirts, cut off the sleeves, and sewed the bottom to create openings for the flukes and around the tail for the fecal collector.

"After a few modifications, including Velcro-attachments for the 'nappy,' we hoped we had the perfect solution to our unusual problem," says education coordinator Kathy Townsend. "To our great surprise, it worked perfectly. The suits were easy to put on, comfortable for the sea turtles to wear, looked great, and Owen was able to collect the entire fecal sample."

The researchers say that after the samples were collected the turtles were relieved of their swimsuits and returned to Moreton Bay.

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