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Turtles to Test Wireless Network

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Working like a cell phone sending a text message, the base station zaps the data to the UMass-Amherst campus about 15 miles away, where biologists are charting each turtle's whereabouts.

"We're trying to get a better idea of their range, the routes they take and where they hibernate," said Jones, who is working on a doctoral degree in biology. "If you have that information for a good number of turtles, you can predict what their patterns will be for the next 50 years or so."

Booming land development and an increase in natural predators has landed seven of Massachusetts' 10 freshwater turtle species on the state's endangered species list. Snappers aren't there yet, but Jones and other biologists are concerned they're on their way.

"People think they're a nuisance, they're aggressive and they're smelly," he said. "And you see a lot of dead snappers on the side of the road. But most of the turtles that people are running over are mothers trying to get somewhere to nest."

By mapping where and how the snappers move, they're trying to generate enough information that could be used to help protect turtle habitats.

Until now, tracking turtles has been a difficult _ and messy _ business.

Jones has been following turtles around New England by attaching radio receivers to their shells. When he goes looking for them, he has to carry a radio receiver while wading through swamps and bushwhacking through woods hoping to pick up a signal. And the radio batteries are good for only about two years.

If TurtleNet _ which was launched in June _ works, he'll be able to spend less time hunting for his subjects. The computers should let him know where the turtles are at any time.

Researchers from Princeton University have been using a similar technology during the past five years to track zebras in Kenya. Unlike TurtleNet, the Princeton project uses computers with larger batteries that could be more easily carried on collars attached to the strong, fast-moving zebras.

Still, the end result is the same, and the Princeton scientists say their studies have shed new light on the animals' migratory patterns.

"These are early examples of using computer engineering to answer questions about biology," said Margaret Martonosi, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton. "If you know where these animals are going and how they're moving, you could take steps to better preserve the land and their habitat."

While the turtles may not be covering as much ground as the zebras, their interaction with people is increasing. And that puts them in more peril.

"You see a lot of them up the road this time of year," said Les Jackson, who works on a farm adjacent to the swamp where M16 was found.

Early summer is when turtles nest, and finding a place to lay their eggs often means crossing busy roads. The snappers Jackson was referring to were the ones he's seen crushed by cars.


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