Conservationist Recruits RC Cars to Protect the Desert Tortoise

Hardshell Labs/YouTube
Hardshell Labs/YouTube / Hardshell Labs/YouTube

Urbanization has proven to be a rough deal for the desert tortoise. Its natural habitat in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of California continues to shrink as development spreads. Meanwhile, the population of one their most fearsome predators, the raven, has flourished in light of the abundant sources of food and shelter provided by humans. As Motherboard reports, a tortoise conservationist now hopes to defend the species using some unconventional bodyguards.

The Guardian Angel is a remote-controlled vehicle drivers can navigate online using live-video streaming from a camera onboard. It’s the brainchild of Hardshell Labs, a corporation founded by desert biologist Tim Shields. Shields has devoted decades of his life to studying the desert tortoise, and now he’s using RC cars to protect them from predators.

Ravens can’t seem to stand the rovers—by driving them among tortoises the team can prevent the birds from attacking vulnerable juveniles. Unlike the ravens, the tortoises apparently aren’t bothered by the Guardian Angels. The vehicles are close in speed and size to a tortoise, and, as Tim Shields describes on the project website, the animals get used to the devices once they’ve had a chance to check them out. According to Shields there “comes a moment when curiosity overcomes caution and the tortoise approaches the rover for a sniff. Always a sniff test and always one of the tires. After that, the tortoise loses almost all interest in the rover.”

The team at Hardshell Labs is investigating another raven-repelling tactic. Because ravens' eyes are acutely sensitive to a certain wavelength of green light, lasers can be used to ward them off. The tests so far don’t indicate any permanent damage done to their eyes, and the birds seem to flee before becoming accustomed to the lights.

If using lasers to protect tortoises from ravens sounds like your idea of a good time, Shields could use your help. His team at Hardshell Labs is developing an augmented reality app that allows players to direct lasers and keep predators at bay. Hardshell Labs is one of many groups gamifying conservation to get the public involved. As Tim Shields says, “saving the world should be fun.”

[h/t Motherboard]

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