Defending nature: Real-life video game may help protect desert tortoises
JOSHUA TREE, California — Tim Shields holds a baby desert tortoise shell up to the sun, looking through it like a kaleidoscope. He’s carrying a container filled with these empty shells perforated with holes.
Over the four decades that Shields has been a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey, he has watched the tortoise population in the Mojave Desert decline sharply. Where once he saw dozens of baby tortoises over the span of a season, now he can go days without spotting a single one. What he does find are these empty shells—sometimes dozens in a single nest.
Ravens Able To Crack Baby Tortoises' Thin Shells
Desert tortoise shells don’t harden until the reptile is about 5 or 6 years old. Until then, hatchlings are walking gummy snacks for one of the most intelligent desert predators, ravens.
Even before ravens, the tortoise was in trouble. Its fate has long been tied to the history of humans. As people moved into the Mojave, the tortoise was faced with challenges including off-road vehicle use, the illegal pet trade and spreading respiratory disease. By 1984, scientists estimated a 90 percent population decline in desert tortoise population in less than 100 years, largely because of habitat destruction. Today, an estimated 100,000 tortoises remain in the American Southwest.
The Population Of Ravens Is On The Rise
While human activity hurt the tortoises, it actually helped the ravens. Over the past half century, the birds have multiplied as new sources of food and water become available from human-made landfills, road kill, dumpsters and sewage ponds. Estimates say the raven population has increased by 700 percent since 1960.
Shields remembers a key moment in 2011 when he could not spot a single young tortoise roaming out in the field. Instead, the only one he saw was struggling in the beak of a raven. “That moment hit me really hard,” he says. He decided that the conservation model of monitoring tortoises, restoring their homes and relocating them to preserves wasn’t working. More needed to be done.
Reptiles Important To Life In The Desert
Desert tortoises have roamed the Southwest for millions of years. These reptiles are crucial to their desert ecosystems. While creating their burrows, they till soil nutrients for plant life and create hiding spots for lizards and ground squirrels. Gila monsters and coyotes eat their eggs for breakfast; roadrunners and snakes snack on young tortoises; badgers and golden eagles feast on adults.
In 2014, Shields founded the company Hardshell Labs to develop high-tech defense methods for protecting this reptile. He hopes to use these techniques to create safe zones for baby tortoises in the desert.
New Methods To Protect Baby Tortoises
One of those methods is scattering 3-D printed baby tortoise decoys, which give off irritants made from grape juice concentrate. Another is laser guns that fire a green light that irritates ravens’ eyes.
The lasers can be mounted on a remote-control rover or shot by people. Shooting within a meter is usually enough to spook the ravens.
An important part of these technologies is that they do not kill the birds. Ravens are protected by law. The birds, their nests and their eggs all fall under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Hunting them is against the law.
Moreover, many recognize the ravens' important role in the ecosystem. Shields is among them. “We’re not going to get rid of the charm of ravens, and there are people who are as charmed by ravens as I am by tortoises,” he says.
Video Game Planned To Get People Involved
Now, Hardshell Labs is aiming to turn its technologies into a sort of video game. Shields and his team hope to take advantage of the qualities that make gaming addictive. They hope to use the power of games to protect the desert tortoise.
It’s especially hard to get people to care about conservation in the deserts. When compared to lush places like rainforests, the desert has the image of being remote and empty. Many people do not realize there is an entire ecosystem in the desert to protect, Austin says.
In fact, the desert is teeming with life. The Mojave Desert is a unique eco-region, with 80 to 90 percent plants and species found nowhere else in the world. It is also one of the most at-risk areas of the West, with over 100 of its over 2,500 species considered threatened.
Raven Repel App Being Tested
Shields’ vision for Hardshell Labs is to turn armchair activists into conservationists. Its video game could allow users to remotely control techno-tortoises, lasers and rovers online. They have tested an early version of the game called Raven Repel, an app in the style of "Pokemon Go."
Several bird species also suffer from ravens preying on their eggs. The same principles used for the decoy tortoises could be used to make eggs with repellent, Shields says.
Apps like Raven Repel could help other fragile ecosystems, too. Players might control submarines that could capture invasive species, such as pythons in the Everglades and the Asiatic carp in the Great Lakes, for example.
Shields sees plenty of potential. A 14-year-old kid in a wheelchair could be a valued tortoise biologist, he says. A prisoner could reconnect with the world by helping.
In Shields’ view, we can't deny that we are a screen culture, connected to technology.
“My long, long term goal is to get people to fall in love with the planet through the screen, and then realize the limitations of the screen," he says. Then they can get out into nature, he says.