Sea turtles sport trendy swimsuits for science

How do you go about collecting the faeces of an extremely tough, 120kg ocean-roaming sea turtle? The answer, it seems, is with a customised and oh-so-fashionable swimsuit.

Owen Coffee, a PhD student from the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences, has recently been researching the diet of endangered sea turtles in the hope of locating their foraging areas.

To do this, a team of researchers captured six wild loggerhead sea turtles and kept them in seawater tanks at UQ’s Moreton Bay Research Station until they’d done their business.

The challenge, Mr Coffee explained, was that it was proving difficult to collect the entire faecal sample once it had dispersed into the water.

A solution to the sticky problem came about when the station’s education coordinator, Dr Kathy Townsend, remembered that researchers had previously developed soft little swimsuits for studying the vision of sea turtle hatchlings.

One of the fashionable red swimsuits in action, working as a giant nappy—complete with removable poo collector. Photo: University of Queensland
One of the fashionable red swimsuits in action working as a giant nappy—complete with removable poo collector
Photo: University of Queensland

Inspired, Mr Coffee went about making a bigger version of the swimsuits with second-hand sunshirts (‘rashies’ in Aussie lingo) bought from a local charity shop. The sleeves were removed, slits placed up the sides and the bottom sewn together in two places, leaving space for the turtle’s tail and then a detachable faecal collector.

‘After a few modifications, including Velcro-attachments for the ‘nappy’, we hoped we had the perfect solution to our unusual problem,’ Dr Townsend said.

‘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 faecal sample.’

A loggerhead turtler pondering its tan-lines. Photo: University of Queensland
A costume clad loggerhead turtler, perhaps pondering its tan lines
Photo: University of Queensland

Mr Coffee hopes that the collections will provide a snapshot into what the turtles had been feeding on over the previous two days before the capture, to deduce which feeding sites seem to be the most frequented by the animals, and thus the ones most in need of protection.

After the samples were collected, the world’s best-dressed sea turtles had their swimsuits removed and were returned to Moreton Bay.