Strapping fitness technology and a video camera to Australian flatback turtles in Western Australia has revealed details of their little-known lives at sea, including successfully fighting off an attacking tiger shark.
- A camera attached to a flatback turtle has recorded it successfully fighting off a tiger shark
- Researchers have also recorded details of turtles’ swimming and feeding activity
- Most previous flatback turtle research focussed on nesting behaviour; only 0.5 per cent of their lives
Every movement a group of flatback turtles makes in Broome’s Roebuck Bay is being monitored; from flipper beats to deep dives.
The 29 turtles wear a gadget, attached by a suction cup on the shell, which records a range of movement data, just like smart watches and fitness apps.
Murdoch University researcher Jenna Hounslow says flatback turtles, which can grow to weigh 90 kilograms, are unique among the marine reptiles.
“Flatback turtles are only found in Australian waters, and they only nest on Australian beaches, so that makes them more vulnerable because they have such a limited range.”
The other 99.5 per cent
Most flatback turtle research focussed on when the animals were accessible while nesting on a beach, which only represented 0.5 per cent of their life.
These devices were fitted in 2018 in collaboration with Yawuru country managers and the Department of Conservation, Biodiversity and Attractions (DBCA), and have provided a much fuller picture of the species’ behaviour.
“I can see when and where flatback turtles in Roebuck Bay are resting and when they’re active, at different times of day, what depths, and whether that changes with the seasons.”
The devices record 15 data points, 50 times a second, for a week.
It shows a flatback turtle beats its flippers once every second if cruising, but the flippers beat four times a second when speeding.
A high-definition camera records eight hours of video, including what the turtles eat and how they interact with other species.
The turtles can be seen digging small holes in the sand and camouflaging themselves while they rest.
Turtle versus shark
One piece of vision captured on turtle cam caused Ms Hounslow to hold her breath as she watched; when a tiger shark tried to eat a male flatback turtle.
“I got really nervous watching the video because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.
“I was really pleased for this turtle that he lived to tell the tale through the video.”
Ms Hounslow hopes the world-first footage will be published in a scientific journal, ahead of the two years that remain on her PhD project.