Monday, 9 May 2016

Sea Turtle Excavation and Re-assembly Project

***Please note that it may be necessary to seek the appropriate permit and legal papers to possess a turtle skeleton while residing in the Philippines. My suggestion is to contact your local and regional BFAR offices for rules and regulations regarding the possession of marine animal remains before proceeding with your excavation and re-assembly. It is important to promote the right message within the community and to nurture conservation for these declining sea turtle species!

One of the best projects during my Peace Corps service in the Philippines  was excavating and re-assembling a turtle skeleton using marine epoxy, tape, and an electric drill. It is unclear why this turtle died, but plastic bags were found inside the stomach region, which may have contributed to the death of the animal. This turtle is one of two that I helped excavate during my service, while I also helped bury one on a beach, which had also died for undetermined reasons.

Excavating the turtle skeleton from a local beach required around 5 hours of physical labor

The carpenter and I worked on this project during the afternoons with cups of coffee and freshly baked bread from the bakery across the street. Neither of us had ever done this type of project before, but together we figured out how to re-assemble a turtle skeleton! It was a memorable period of bonding for an American and a Filipino over a project we knew would be useful to the children in the community and one that would help conserve local wildlife. We are still good friends three years after completion of this project.

Pencil was used to mark each bone

This skeleton has been a valuable teaching tool in our marine children’s museum! During our school field trips the educators emphasize how plastic bags can be devastating on marine life. I am not an expert on bones or skeletal re-construction, but I do like puzzles! And my philosophy at the time of excavation was that if I could remove each bone carefully (and label it in some way) I should be able to connect it back to the whole later during re-assembly. Use a pencil for labeling and be sure to bring many plastic baggies, and a camera for documentation. I found myself taking many pictures to remind me of which bones connected where.

Local children insisted on helping wash the turtle bones

I did my best to keep these bones organized using post-it notes

After excavation, wash and clean your turtle bones. The kids volunteered to help and were very curious about the process from beginning to finish! Take advantage of the opportunity to talk with curious spectators about turtles and conservation. This is an opportunity to bond within the community, and people were curious to learn about this animal on their beach! The children and I used soapy water and a few soft brushes for gentle scrubbing. (It is important to not rub down the areas where the bones will later connect. They serve as your “guide lines” and will fit back together perfectly if not disturbed.) Allow your bones to fully dry before gluing. Once they are dry you may begin piecing them together again. The pencil should not have washed off during the cleaning process. You can erase it later using the eraser.

Mixing marine epoxy for the first time

The carpenter showed me how to use the tools and together we slowly worked through this project 

Marine epoxy can be bought at most hardware stores in the Philippines. It’s about 80 pesos for ¼ liter (they give you two small canisters). You will need two separate mixing sticks, and you must mix both pastes equally together on a plate or in a cup or on some surface. The mixture will gradually start to harden. It becomes as hard as plastic, so be careful. Next, frost your bones like frosting a cake! Apply generous amounts of the mixed-marine epoxy to the edges of your bones and tape them together using tape to hold them in place. You can wet a sponge or a paper towel and wipe away any extra marine epoxy from your bones. It’s best to get all the extra off at the start – it will save you time during the sanding down process. Use small pieces of wood, screws, and an electric drill to hold the bones together firmly during the drying process. Use your masking tape liberally for extra stability and allow about 24 hours for drying.

I looked forward to working on this project every afternoon for many months!

The entire reconstruction process can take an extremely long time, or not long at all depending on your work speed! This skeleton took me 9 months to complete because I was working on other projects at the time, and I was dependent on the carpenter who owned the electric drill and over-saw our work space. This turtle did not have a head when it washed up on shore and so, no head is included in the final reconstruction. Also, it became too tedious to identify the little finger bones. (Perhaps if I had taken more care during the excavation process I may have been able to label them at the beginning and thus, piece them together during the final re-construction stages.)

The carpenter (Richard) is sanding down the dried marine epoxy so the shell would have a smooth finish

Richard posing for the camera! This was his first time engaging in such a project too!

Eventually, you should sand down all the rough bumps and edges of the dried marine epoxy once you finish constructing the skeleton. You can then paint your skeleton using lacquer (around 60 pesos per bottle). This will help protect the bones and give them a shiny finish. I put about 6 coats on this skeleton because I wanted it well protected. 

Again, this specimen hangs in our marine children's museum and is used elusively as a teaching tool and for educational purposes. 

The finished specimen hangs in our children's museum by the ocean

This view shows the ventral side where the "belly bones"attach

This specimen has been a valuable teaching tool during our Marine Protected Area field trips

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