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‘Zombie Turtles’ Deployed to Solve Mystery of Turtle Deaths in Chesapeake Bay

Jun 18, 2016 12:57 AM EDT

Researchers have released zombie turtles or "Frankenturtles" into Chesapeake Bay on Monday to find out the cause of death of turtles in the area.

Hundreds of dead loggerhead turtles are being washed up on the shores of Chesapeake Bay every summer. Using the zombie turtles, the researchers were trying to find out the cause of the demise.

The research team from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science led by assistant professor David Kaplan devised a "turtle carcass drift" model using two dead turtles.

Researchers recreated the classic tale of Dr. Frankenstein, replacing the dead turtles' inner organs with buoyant Styrofoam and sewing their shells back using zip ties. GPS units were also attached to the turtles to make sure they don't get washed away by the currents.

Orange turtle models made of wood and Styrofoam and bucket drifters were also used in the research.

"It might seem sort of gross, but it's a good way to reuse a dead turtle that would otherwise be buried," Kaplan said in a statement published in "And hopefully, the deployment of our two Frankenturtles will ultimately help lower the number of turtle deaths in the future."

The dead turtles both came from the Virginia Aquarium's Stranding Response Program. One weighed 150 pounds and the other was 70 pounds. According to the researchers, one of these turtles is a 15- to 20-year-old loggerhead killed by a boat strike.

According to the researchers, the drifters were deployed in open Bay waters, halfway between the mouth of the York River and Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore of the Virginia bayside.

Data gathered from the drifters will help researchers figure out how the dead loggerhead turtles drift. But the researchers also noted that they may not travel through the water the same way the artificial drifters do.

"If our model can accurately simulate how winds and currents act on a dead sea turtle, we should be able to backtrack from a standing site to the place where the turtle likely died," Bianca Santos, a graduate student and member of the research team, said in a news release.

"By knowing the 'where,' we can better look at the 'why,'" she added.

An estimated 100 to 300 loggerhead turtles are washed ashore in Chesapeake Bay each year. The Endangered Species Act listed them as "threatened species" due to the perils they face, such as loss of nesting habitat, disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting, nest predation, and incidental capture in dredges and coastal fisheries.

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