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Sea Turtle Research Databases

At Osa Conservation (where I am currently doing volunteer work), sea turtle research has been going on for at least ten years. Data about the sea turtles, their nests and the hatchlings, is written down in note books during the beach patrols. Later, this data is collected in one or more spreadsheets. Over time, they have produced about 120 different tables. My volunteer work consists of putting the data from about 100 tables together into one. To do this I developed a database tool, called table-stitcher.

The other problem that the sea turtle team asked me to tackle was that they were wondering if there is a way to make sure that from now on, everybody uses the same structure and formatting.

To me the obvious answer is, yes, you can create a relational database, put it on-line and enter data from the beach through a mobile phone. And if there is no coverage on the beach, you enter and store the data temporarily on a phone or tablet and then synchronize it with the database once you can connect them.

Sea Turtle Research Databases (STRDs)

If one gets an idea like that at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the next thing to do is checking if such a tool does not already exist. After all, sea turtle research and projects like this have been with us for decades and decades, so perhaps someone else has already built something similar.

I went looking on the internet, and … surprise … someone did. In fact multiple actors did. In the remainder of this text, I will briefly introduce them one by one, and in chronological order because the history tells a story in itself.

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1. The state of the world’s sea turtles (SWOT)

“Founded in 2003, SWOT is a partnership among Oceanic Society, the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group, Duke University’s OBIS-SEAMAP, and a growing international network of institutions and individuals. This powerful group—the SWOT Team—works to compile and publish global sea turtle data that support conservation and management efforts at the international, national, and local scales.”

www.seaturtlestatus.org/about-swot

This is an impressive bunch of organizations and the fact that after 17 years it is still in operation means a lot. The website claims that more than 1500 volunteers have been adding data to the database which contains 6000 ‘nesting records’ from 3000 sites/beaches. Much of the data is publicly available (under terms of use which I have not checked) and on-line browse-able.

I downloaded the blank forms and found that the data is in part highly aggregated, i.e. giving overview numbers of nests per beach, and in part very specific about individual turtles.

In my opinion it is worth the while to participate in this collection effort, but it is not a support for data collection during the beach patrols.

One footnote, even though it may be a very commendable project, I was put off by the photo of the pop-up that you get when you enter the website. They ask you to participate and show a photo of a man in wet suit holding a sea turtle in the air, as if he was proud to have caught one. I wonder what the turtle thought about it.

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2. Turtle Research and Monitoring Database System (TREDS)

“The Turtle Research and Monitoring Database System (TREDS) provides invaluable information for Pacific island countries and territories to
manage their turtle resources. TREDS can be used to collate data from strandings, tagging, nesting, emergence and beach surveys as well as other biological data on turtles.

www.sprep.org/thetreds

According to the web page quoted here, this sea turtle database was developed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in collaboration with other governmental and intergovernmental organizations (Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, NOAA Fisheries, Queensland Government Environmental Protection Agency, South-East Asia Fisheries Development Centre and the Marine Research Foundation).

It was developed around 2003 and tested in Samoa, American Samoa, Vanuatu, French Polynesia and Fiji. It seems that the project was finished in 2007. Most news about TREDS stopped in 2014.

The database and a manual is downloadable from the SPREP webpage quoted above and is implemented in Microsoft Access 2007. However, also a stand-alone version seems available. Unfortunately, I haven’t bee able to test it because I don’t have a Windows computer. The manual can be downloaded and I browsed it to see if the software could be used by Osa Conservation’s (OC) sea turtle program.

On the upside, the software allows for setting up a central database and having remote versions that upload or sync data to the central database. The remote version would have to run on a Windows machine as well. Back in 2007 that would be impractical because one would have to take a laptop to the beach. Today Microsoft produces hybrid laptop/tablet PCs that might work pretty well on the beach – although there might still be issues with sand and rain.

Another good thing about the TREDS database is that the remote installations do not have to be on-line. Also, much of the data collected at OC would fit, but unfortunately not all. In particular, the software does not allow collecting a lot of data about the conditions in the hatchery.

From the outset, it looks like a very interesting and in outline well thought through database. I am no fan of MS Access, but if it does the job well, who am I to complain. In fact, it is a pity that most of the activities around the project seemed to have stopped in 2014. In 2019 there was a call for tender for a new version in Drupal 8 (all I know is that it is a content management system), but the call was canceled this year. I sent an email to ask how the project is doing but so far have received no reply.

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3. Turtle Tracker

“Turtle Tracker is a web-based data management system for collecting and analyzing sea turtle nesting and tagging data, which can be customized to meet your specific needs. You can collect, view, and report on all of your sea turtle data, exactly how you want. The data and site are optimized to ensure the easiest and most accurate data entry for your staff and users – and it’s just as easy to find specific data too.”

axeinc.com/sea-turtle-database

Turtle trackers is the only commercial database software that I found. It is produced by Axe Inc in the USA. The database needs to be installed on a webserver and then is reachable via browser on computers, tablets and smartphones. It captures the basic needs, but as with the TREDS system and all the other systems, not all data that is being collected at Osa Conservation will fit in. Then again, the producer claims that it can be adjusted to specific needs.

As with TREDS – its main competitor – users can have different roles which gives them different access rights and edit possibilities. The fact that one needs to be on-line to work with the database is a downside for those locations where there is no internet – and believe me, they exist plenty if one follows the turtles.

The screen shots that the Axe website provides feel a bit crude and outdated, which is why I think it is a system developed in the early 2000s. It has a nice map viewer that works with GPS so that one can immediately see the location of a nest. According to Osa Conservation’s current patrol manual, GPS is (in)accurate up to 6 meters on the Osa beaches, which is too much for locating the nest when one is on the beach. This inaccuracy may not be the same elsewhere in the world.

The Axe website provides no price indications.

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4. Turtles Uniting Researchers and Tourists (TURT)

Probably launched in 2015, there is an app for iPhone and Android that uses crowdsourcing to collect basic data about turtle sightings. Users who sight a turtle are asked to take a picture and upload it through the app together with basic data about the sighting: which turtle species, GPS location, weather conditions, day and time.

The data ends up in the hands of ProTECTOR, Protective Turtle Ecology Center for Training Outreach and Research. It is a firm based in California that focuses mostly on Honduras. The app was written by Dustin Baumbach, who at that time was a PhD student and marine researcher at Loma Linda University, also in California. (Esri newsroom)

I only briefly mention it here, because it shows that crowdsourcing through mobile apps is of course a way to collect data about sea turtles. However as a system to systematically collect data about particular beaches it lacks a lot of depth in data. And like with the Turtle Tracker, one needs to be on-line to work with the app.

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5. Sea Turtle DB

“This global database serves as a repository for sea turtle tag records and a platform to further sea turtle research, conservation, and management.”

seaturtledb.com

According to the website and the FAQs, this is a database where anyone affiliated to organizations doing sea turtle research can become a ‘member’, i.e. a registered user of the database. One can upload data and share it with selected other users, or make public as far as one wants. Registration is for free.

In the previous paragraph, I put member between quotes, because as far as I can tell the database is not run by an association. The database is run by a company called Biomark. Biomark, which according to its website is a specialist company in identification solutions for animals. A quick browsing reveals that they make RFID based tagging solutions. These tags can be used on sea turtles as well.

The database focuses on data related to the tag and the sea turtle, according to the FAQs of the website. This means that data about nests, hatching, hatchlings, predation and what more, possibly will not find a place in this database. Also, I wonder if the database is useful if one is not using RFID tags but flipper tags ( metal tags with a unique code that are attached to the turtles’ flippers).

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6. Conclusion. Some systems get close but none is ideal

In the previous chapters, I briefly described and discussed a number of sea turtle databases that I found on the internet. In this chapter, I will draw some conclusions.

Two serious candidates

Even though I found five databases, only two of them are made for the purpose of collecting data during beach patrols: TREDS AND Turtle Tracker. Most of the others are meant to aggregate data from multiple sea turtle projects and beaches. Finally, there is one that aims at collecting data through crowd sourcing, also known as Citizen Science. That one collects data from the beach, but since the crowd is not trained to for example examine nests or count egg shells after hatching, it is not suitable for beach patrols.

Software namePurposeStart YearProducer
1The state of the world’s sea turtles (SWOT)Aggregating world wide data2003Partnership (Oceanic Society, the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group, Duke University’s OBIS-SEAMAP)
2Turtle Research and Monitoring Database System (TREDS)Beach patrol and aggregation2003Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in collaboration with other governmental and intergovernmental organizations
3Turtle TrackerBeach patrol±2003Axe Inc
4Turtles Uniting Researchers and Tourists (TURT)Tourist crowd sourcing2015Dustin Baumbach / Protective Turtle Ecology Center for Training Outreach and Research
5Sea Turtle DBAggregating world wide data2020Biomark

Old software

The two serious contenders, TREDS and Turtle Tracker, are both quite old. TREDS is a Microsoft Access 2007 Application and Turtle Tracker seems to work with a specially designed server. In both cases it is unclear whether they are still alive and thus whether one can still get support if something goes wrong or if help is otherwise needed. An advantage of TREDS over Turtle tracker is that it is for free, whereas the price of Turtle Tracker is a mystery, which means it might not be cheap but perhaps also that it is negotiable.

Off-line on laptop, or on-line on a phone or tablet

The TREDS server has the possibility to aggregate data from TREDS clients, even (or only?) through off-line exchange of data. This means that the clients do not need to be on-line for data entry. This would be an advantage over Turtle Tracker, at least for Osa Conservation, because large parts of the beaches are not covered by mobile phone networks. Unfortunately, TREDS is a MS Access implementation, which means that one needs a Windows computer or laptop to install it and enter the data. Beaches and laptops do not go well together unfortunately and I am not sure a laptop is as practical as a block-note.

With Turtle Tracker, it is the reverse. The server connects to the clients through a web interface, which means that both need to be on-line. But if there is a network, then a mobile phone or tablet may suffice.

Flexibility

There are many sea turtle projects out there, and probably no two collect exactly the same data. So, some flexibility is needed.

Turtle Tracker claim some flexibility when it comes to data fields or variables that can be entered. However, to get this flexibility, it requires specialized re-programming by the vendor.

TREDS does not provide flexibility. The manual shows a high diversity of data. There are some fields that are not collected by Osa Conservation’s sea turtle program, but some of OC’s data can not be captured by TREDS.

Conclusion 1 : there is no perfect fit, except in pen, paper and a spreadsheet

So, neither of the two systems seems perfectly suitable for OC’s needs. And in any case more detailed checking and further testing is needed. I could not compare ease of use nor how different user roles play out in the field. Lastly, I could not test them during actual beach patrols.

In the end probably no software will satisfy OC’s needs. It would require a custom-made solution, which is expensive and still no guarantee for success.

That leaves, making a choice, improvising and adapting to what is on the market and what is possible. Or not making a choice for either of the two solutions, and keep working as they currently do, with pen, paper and a spreadsheet. Those have some downsides, but when it comes to flexibility and robustness in the field (beaches not only have sand, salt, and lack of internet, but also spray and rain) there is little or nothing beating them.

However, this flexibility of spreadsheets will be used and small changes will accumulate into bigger ones and data from different versions will become difficult to compare. So, there is a price to pay for flexible tools, which is why I have been busy making a tool to stitch tables together and doing the stitching.

Conclusion 2 : a curious history

Only while writing the descriptions of the five database solutions did I realize that there is a curious history to them. Apparently, the early 2000’s saw a sudden burst of development : SWOT, TREDS and Turtle Tracker were all developed around the same time, it seems. It makes sense to me because it was when computers and software became cheap and simple enough to make it worth the while for sea turtle data. Or perhaps the earlier systems did not survive because they could not be updated anymore or it was too costly to make them fit in the newer generations of computers and operating systems. Also I would not be surprised if something happened in the world of sea turtle conservation and research that made things come together, and different organizations join forces, as they did with SWOT and TREDS.

Then nothing much happened for say a decade. The iPhone was introduced in 2007, the Android platform shortly after and sure enough apps were invented to collect data. I only described TURT but more digging will reveal more of such applications. If 2020 had not seen the launch of the Sea Turtle DB, then nothing much has happened since. Crowd sourcing yes, but when it comes to tools for beach patrols nothing has been developed since the early 2000s.

The questions then are what have all the hundreds and perhaps thousands sea turtle conservation projects been using and why is there no up-to-date software? In the Pacific and East Asian region, TREDS may have seen some use even though the evidence for that did not poor out Google when I searched.

Perhaps a large number of the projects were not interested in capturing too much data. After all, the aim has been to save the sea turtle species by protecting their nests and nesting beaches rather than by capturing data. Then again, it makes sense even for conservation purposes to keep track of the number of turtles, nests, eggs and so on. Perhaps this also explains why SWOT only collects aggregate numbers for beaches and tracking data for individual turtles, i.e. data that is relatively easy to capture.

For the rest, I can only guess that sea turtle projects have been doing something similar as the project at Osa Conservation : note books, pens and spreadsheets. That means that there might be room for a data collection system that is cheap and lives up to the requirements of flexibility, off-line working, running on phones or tablets, is easy to work with, and allows for selective sharing of data.

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This page has previously been published as separate posts at theflipflop.life blog and at my ‘databases for research‘ blog

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