Hawaiian Teen Wins $10,000 for Research on Mysterious Outbreak Killing Sea Turtles

Teenager wins award for researching sick turtles

Photo: Shanemyersphoto.com/Depositphotos

Though many high school students may not be enthusiastic about science projects, one determined student decided to take it upon himself to spend nearly three years on one. Meet Maddux Alexander Springer, a Hawaiian teen who noticed a lack of study on a species of sea turtles afflicted by a mysterious disease and decided to research it himself.

Springer, now 18, first saw the green sea turtles covering the sea floor while on his free dives in Kāneʻohe Bay, on the eastern side of Oahu, during the pandemic. They were covered in cauliflower-like tumors because of fibropapillomatosis or FP, a disease that affects up to 97% of sea turtles world-wide. Usually it remains latent, but once the illness becomes activated, tumors grow first on the outside and then sometimes the inside of turtles. While the tumors themselves are not dangerous, they can block breathing and eating, leading to tragic results.

After not finding enough answers about the illness taking its toll on Hawaii's turtles, Springer set out to do his own research. He wanted to figure out what was activating the FP in Hawaii's turtles himself. He applied for permits to biopsy the turtles' tumors, but was denied his request. Undeterred, he set up a network of underwater motion-sensing cameras to survey the turtle population.  Not only did the cameras help him find out that FP was indeed extremely prevalent, but it also helped him discover that the turtles were eating a lot of an invasive species of algae, graciliaria salicornia. Normally, eating algae is one of the turtles' key jobs in their ecosystem, as too much algae will suffocate corals reefs, which are already stressed by rising temperatures. However there turns out to be a difference between the invasive algae and native species. Graciliaria salicornia absorbs sewage 11 times more than the turtles' historical meals.

Teenager wins award for researching sick turtles

This Hawaiian green turtle is severely afflicted with fibropapillomatosis. The mouth tumors are unique to Hawaiian greens. (Photo:Peter Bennett & Ursula Keuper-Bennett via Wikimedia Commons, CC by 3.0.)

In case you weren't aware, Hawaii, arguably one of the most beautiful places on Earth, is essentially stewing in its own poop. There are over 83,000 cesspools in Hawaii. Partly because of geography and partly because of a post-WWII population boom, many Hawaiians rely on a hole beneath their houses to store wastewater. This wastewater leaches into the ground, and because Hawaii's volcanic soil is very porous, it quickly flows into the ocean. Fifty-two million gallons of untreated sewage are released into the ground each day in Hawaii.

Along with increasing skin and gastrointestinal infections among beach-goers, wastewater includes a high amount of nitrogen. In humans, this has been shown to increase rates of cancer, but we're not the only ones getting hurt. Springer wondered if the invasive algae was soaking up nitrogen from waste and converting it to arginine, an amino acid that was already shown to correlate to FP. The inquisitive teen started collecting and processing algae samples to be measured by a lab's mass spectrometer. The spectrometer confirmed Springer's suspicions about arginine levels in the turtles' main source of grub.

While his study hasn't been peer reviewed, he won first prize in the animal sciences division of the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. Additionally, he received the Peggy Scripps Award for Science Communication, giving him $10,000 towards his education. Springer plans to study marine biology at Orgeon State University in the fall. He's hoping that his project will help bring attention to the urgent crisis in Hawaii. He states, “I just really want to raise awareness that this is an issue, and that the only way that this can be solved is by government intervention.”

The state has committed to replacing all cesspools by 2050. But that's not soon enough to avoid dire consequences for the turtles and the entire ecosystem, including humans. In May, the legislature passed a bill imposing fees on property owners who have cesspools to help fund cesspool alternatives. However, that will only put a dent in the costs expected to convert cesspools to modern wastewater management systems. Hopefully, as they turn of voting age, Springer's peers will follow his lead and be effective advocates for clean water.

18-year-old Maddux Alex Springer won the Peggy Scripps Science Communication Award for his work on sickly sea turtles living off of Oahu.

Teenager wins award for researching sick turtles

Photo: Shanemyersphoto.com/Depositphotos

Answering a question that had stumped scientists, the high schooler demonstrated the serious consequences of water pollution.

Kaneohe Bay where turtles are afflicted with fibropapillomatosis

Majestic Ka'a'awa mountain and lovely Kāneʻohe Bay (Photo:Eric Tessmer/Wikimedia Commons by CC 2.0)

h/t: [Reddit]

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Elizabeth Beiser

Elizabeth Beiser is a Contributing Writer and Project Coordinator at My Modern Met. She has a background in American Cultural History with a special focus on Modern art and democratic community building. She received her B.A. in history, with a minor in Studio Arts, and her M.A. in history from the University of Rochester. She has worked on multiple political campaigns, as well as in non-profit operations and direct service. When she’s not writing, she’s experimenting with all varieties of arts and crafts. She also enjoys spending time with four-legged friends and exploring her hometown of Boston.
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