3-D Printed Shells Help Tortoises Survive Hostile Desert Life

3-D Printed Shells Help Tortoises Survive Hostile Desert Life

Conservationists using new technology to study what eats the slow-moving critters—and then tricking those predators into stopping.

A team in the South Western U.S. is using 3-D printed tortoise shells to help the dwindling dessert tortoise population. But these aren’t replacements for damaged shells. They’re high-tech decoys, designed to confuse one of the tortoise’s worst predators.

Ravens feed off young dessert tortoises, picking off the small ones before they grow too big, which takes seven to 10 years. Instead of trying to eliminate these predators, the team from Hardshell Labs, along with Tatjana Dzambazova of 3-D software company Autodesk, are giving the tortoises a better chance of survival.

The shells are printed to match the size of a young dessert tortoise. They’re fitted with sensors, which track the activity of the ravens, and—here’s the neat part—they have a non-toxic spray that trains the ravens not to attack. So after enough of times of swooping down and pecking at a bad-smelling shell (with no tortoise inside), they’ll eventually abandon the tortoises as a food source entirely.

The shells are uncannily good. « When asking colleagues which shell is real and which is the 3D-printed copy, rarely anyone guesses it right, » Dzambazova told Co.Exist. This is all down to the scanning and printing tech, she says. « It’s exciting that capturing and digitizing the real world has become so easy and accessible. »

The project is still in its early stages. « I recently placed three lures in the desert where ravens are known to be, » says conservation researcher William Boarman. « I will be returning to the sites late next week to see how they fared. I’ll know then if the shells were investigated, attacked, or removed. I have motion-triggered, infrared video and still cameras trained on the models, so we’ll know if ravens (or anyone else) disturbed them. I hope to have an additional 50 lures to scatter around the desert in a more thorough experiment to test them. »

The availability of cheap and reliable tech makes projects like this possible. Whereas in the past, this kind of endeavor might require the resources of a university, today a campaign can be Kickstarted, or just kicked off with a small investment. « About 15 years ago, we used styrofoam models of juvenile tortoises that were nowhere near as authentic-looking as the 3D models are. Nearly 40% of those models were attacked by ravens, so we are confident the more realistic 3D ones will work, » Boarman says.

The team won’t know how effective their conservation efforts are for a while. The next step is more shells. Lots of them, batched across the desert. « We’ll be able to look at the findings to inform us how to proceed, » says Dzambazova.

Emerging technologies can help conservation in many more ways, too, some just as oddball as these raven-spraying decoys. « There are efforts to use both UAVs (drones) as well as 3D printing in the fight against rhino poaching, » says Dzambazova. One goal is to capture poachers, but they could also « flood the rhino horn market with fake replicas produced synthetically. »

3-D printing can also be used to make good old-fashioned bait. « The ability to mimic natural prey or food item with great accuracy—as in the case of the techno-tortoises—may provide great specificity and reliability in luring animals to sites and situations determined by a researcher, » said Hardshell Labs founder Tim Shields.

Shields outlines the plans for the Techno Tortoises. « We hope to use the lures to assess predation frequency by recording attacks (beak marks made in soft ‘tissue’ of the lure), videotape and photograph raven behavior as they approach and attack the lures, experiment with robotic versions adding the element of motion to the equation, and experiment with marking, trapping and aversively training the birds. » It sounds like the ravens have quite a fight on their hands.

Similar projects could help all kinds of tortoises around the world, which also fall prey to various members of the crow family. « As we gain experience, » says Shields, « we will probably find other combinations of predator and prey with whom this formula will work. We may ultimately be able to add an olfactory element by accurately ‘scenting’ the lures for species that identify prey both by sight and smell. »

And while the team is currently fixated on ravens, the same decoys could be modified to dissuade other predators. « We are testing to see if other tortoise predators, such as coyotes and kit foxes, respond to the lures, » says Boarman. « If so, we could possibly use the models to train them with taste aversion not to eat tortoises. »

It seems conservation is no longer held back by technology. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. « The applications to conservation are so broad they are only limited by conservationists’ creativity, » says Boarman.