Duke Marine Lab student researches light pollution on sea turtles and hatchlings

CARTERET COUNTY, NC (WITN) A masters student at Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort is hoping her research into how light pollution affects nesting sea turtles and their hatchlings on our beaches will help communities come up with viable solutions that will help save these endangered species.

The research was done by Anna Windle, who spent all summer comparing light along Atlantic and Fort Macon beaches to Shackleford Banks, and how that light compares to the number of sea turtle nests.

Windle used what might be considered a drone on wheels and light sensors.

She says, "It's about the size and height of a female nesting sea turtle and it can run remotely down the length of the beach, so we put light sensors on the back of the rover and had it collect light every minute as it drove down the beach, so really high resolution light data collected at a sea turtle's eye level has really never been done before."

Windle measured light pollution and its effect on nesting sea turtles.

She says, "When they see really bright lights they turn around and get spooked, failing to nest and then sea turtle hatchlings are attracted to lights."

With data from her rover, Windle was able to create a map with the intensity of the light along the beach strands, compared to where known sea turtle nests have been on those beaches over the last 6-years.

Windle says, "Just by observing you can see there are much more nesting clusters on Shackleford Banks than on Atlantic Beach. They're more sparse and there is big gaps in the nesting where it's been very bright from waterfront homes, restaurants, hotels, things like that shine light directly onto the beach."

During her research Windle documented with an infrared camera, what happens to hatchlings in these high light pollution areas.

She says, "The hatchlings went all over the place going in circles not really knowing which way was the ocean and this is what would happen to every single nest if we didn't take measures to block the light and direct the hatchlings to the ocean."

Windle's is hoping to turn this data into a solution and has already contacted the Atlantic Beach mayor with some mitigation ideas. She says light timers or sensors could be an option.

Researchers at Duke say this type of field research can pave the way for other groups to use similar methods to measure how light is affecting nesting sea turtles on other beaches and help towns find solutions that will help the endangered species.