Laser guns are the desert tortoise's secret weapon against ravens

April 5, 2016, 8 a.m.
Endangered desert tortoises have a fighting chance against predatory birds thanks to remote-controlled laser guns.
Photo: Tom Tietz/Shutterstock

If you could help desert tortoises escape the wrath of predatory ravens by controlling a laser gun from your computer, would you take part in the conservation effort?

The softer shells of younger desert tortoises can be punctured by ravens, which then eat the juvenile tortoises, littering the ground under their nests with empty tortoise shells, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

But tortoise biologist Tim Shields is banking on an unusual, non-lethal strategy for keeping ravens away from tortoises to give the ancient reptiles a fighting chance at survival.

A harmless but annoying laser beam, which can reach up to a mile away, is aimed at a raven, causing the bird to take flight. When the laser is aimed at a flock, all the birds scatter. This tool can potentially keep ravens from preying on the endangered tortoises.

One person armed with a laser gun hanging out in the desert isn't going to be effective at keeping ravens away from tortoises, but think what if a team of online gamer-conservationists could do!

According to Audubon, "[Shields] bolted awake with a clear vision: a 'Doom'-like video game in which users haze ravens with lasers attached to remote-controlled tortoise robots, fending off attacks in real time. He would recruit a legion of couch potato conservationists to the cause."

Shields has created a start-up, Hardshell Labs, and has lassoed in experts from video game designers to engineers from Apple and NASA to work on the concept. Shields is working the kinks out of the system and running tests to see if the ravens may become habituated to the laser. It's a long shot, but if it works, it could become one of the most fascinating and interactive conservation efforts out there today.

Audubon writes:

Even if the laser and other emerging technologies Hardshell is investigating never morph into the addictive eco video game Shields envisions, if any prove commercially viable, they could have far wider applications than safeguarding tortoises. Dozens of species of protected birds devour crops or strike airplanes, racking up expensive damages and management nightmares. "We are on a technological binge, and that’s not going to change,” Shields says. “Why not try to make the most of it?”

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.