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Endangered Turtles Inspire Robotic Breakthroughs

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Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) stand out as herbivorous turtles, feasting mainly on seagrasses, algae, and mangroves. While their diet includes fish, eggs, jellyfish, sponges, and shellfish, their name comes from the colour of their meat in soups.

They face predators at different life stages, including humans, contributing to their Endangered status per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to overharvesting, coastal development, and plastic ingestion. Despite their dietary resilience, these unique turtles are battling against multifaceted threats that necessitate urgent conservation efforts.

Scientists from Auckland University of Technology have unveiled a breakthrough in understanding the incredible swimming capabilities of endangered green sea turtles. Despite existing solely on algae and seagrass, these turtles can cover a marathon’s distance daily.

This discovery has significant implications for developing advanced underwater robots inspired by these turtles to revolutionise ocean conservation and monitoring efforts.

The green sea turtle manages to travel up to 50 kilometres daily, all while consuming a diet that doesn’t offer much energy. This phenomenon is attributed to their unique swimming technique.

Researchers have replicated this technique in a robotic turtle named Cornelia in a remarkable convergence of nature and technology. The name pays tribute to the late grandmother of Nick van der Geest, a dedicated PhD researcher who guided the robot’s creation.

Dr Lorenzo Garcia, a pioneering engineer in AUT’s Biodesign team, and Nick van der Geest pursuing his PhD at AUT, collaborated on robot development. Their work presents a vital avenue for experimentation while eliminating the ethical complexities associated with animal testing, particularly concerning endangered species. This innovative approach is of utmost importance, as it enables researchers to delve into the secrets of turtle-swimming without imposing any stress on real turtles.

Dr Garcia underscored that even if captive turtles were involved in experimentation, their behaviour might need to align with their natural routines in an artificial aquarium setting. The use of robotic models like Cornelia presents an ethical and pragmatic way to explore the extraordinary capabilities of these creatures while respecting their environment and well-being. This breakthrough could reshape how we approach ocean conservation and the protection of marine life, bringing forth a new era of technology-driven insights and strategies.

The research team made a fascinating revelation through their experiments with the robot turtle: the green sea turtle’s propulsion mechanism only engages for about 30% of each flipper cycle. Astonishingly, the remaining 70% of movement requires minimal energy input and generates negligible drag. This unique adaptation is the key to the turtles’ exceptional swimming prowess over vast distances, even on their energy-scarce diet.

Dr Lorenzo Garcia and his team at Auckland University of Technology have their sights set on a transformative outcome. Their groundbreaking research, detailed in the recent Nature – Scientific Reports publication, lays the foundation for a revolutionary leap in ocean exploration technology. Dr Garcia envisions a new era of robotic systems that draw inspiration from the optimised propulsive strategy of sea turtles, aiming to unlock new frontiers in oceanic investigation and conservation.

This visionary pursuit has received substantial support from the New Zealand Government’s Science for Technological Innovation fund. This funding has propelled the development of a bio-inspired underwater robot, bringing him closer to realising the creation of a sophisticated robotic system that emulates the remarkable abilities of the green sea turtle.

As the team continues to unravel the secrets of the turtles’ efficient swimming mechanism, they inch closer to unleashing a new generation of robotic wonders that could revolutionise ocean exploration and safeguard the delicate marine ecosystems.


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