The National Park Service and the Mexican army are trying to protect the eggs of the Ridley sea turtle from their most aggressive predator: the lover.
The eggs have earned something of a worldwide reputation as an aphrodisiac, and as a result, the species is in danger of becoming extinct.
The turtle traditionally nests in Mexico on Rancho Nuevo beach, along the Gulf Coast. There, Mexicans have plundered the eggs from the mother turtles. As a result, the turtle population at Rancho Vuevo fell from 250,000 in 1947 to 2.500 in 1977.
This year the Mexican army stepped in. From April to June, the traditional nesting period, four Mexican soldiers stood guard over the mother turtles. At the request of the United States, the Mexicans turned over 2,000 eggs, of 90,000 at Rancho Nuevo, for safekeeping. Almost 800 have already been hatched on American soil, and the rest are due to hatch Friday.
The United States asked for the turtles because the National Park Service wanted to establish a new nesting site for them on Padre Island beach in Texas, where several of them have been sighted each year.
It's the only protected beach left along the Gulf Coast," said Roland Wauer, chief scientist of the park service's southwest region. "All the others have condiminums. And in Mexico the eggs just aren't safe."
To get the eggs, U.S. scientists wearing gloves would stalk Rancho Nuevo beach until they saw a mother turtle digging a nest. Then, they would walk behind her and catch the eggs as they fell, before they hit the sand. The eggs then went into a plastic bag, and eventually, into styrofoam containers that were flown to Padre Island.
Because the scientists want the turtles to recognize Padre Island, rather than Rancho Nuevo, as their home - and as the place where they eventually should nest - they placed sand from Padre Island in the containers with the eggs. The researchers think that a chemical in the sand triggers a turtle's memory of home, but they're not sure.
"We've watched turtles push their snouts through the sand, and it looks to all the world like they're trying to get the smell of it," said Peter Pritchard of the Florida Audubon Society. "We don't know if there's a cause and effect relationship between their sniffing and their homing instinct, but we'll try anthing."
He said this was the first time scientists had tried to make turtles "remember" their home.
After the turtles crawl out of their eggs on Padre Island, they will be permitted to toddle along the sand.
"We're hoping that will reinforce their homing instinct," Pritchard said.
Once they swim into the water, scientists will scoop them out with nets and slip them to boxes to Galveston, Tex., where they will spend the first nine months of their lives in long, shallow tanks filled with sea water.Then, they will be released into the Gulf of Mexico - to fend for themselves and perhaps return to Padre Island in a few years.
The scientists are hoping that protecting the turtles until they are 9 months old will save 90 percent of them. Ordinarily, sea turtles suffer a 60 to 70 percent mortality rate as a result of natural predators.
Several dozen of the turtles will have radio transistors attached to them so that scientists can track them. Pritchard said he doubts that turtle eggs are aphrodisiacal.
"There just isn't any scientific evidence to support it," he said.