dog on beach looking in cooler at sea turtle

At the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, there’s a Cairn Terrier with a unique job: Ridley Ranger is part of an effort to save the Kemp’s Ridley, the world’s most endangered sea turtle.

Since 1978, sea turtle eggs laid on the beaches in the park have been collected for incubation to improve their survival, and right about now, the park service is releasing the last batch of hatchlings for this season. Ridley’s help is important because the nests of this species are particularly hard to find.

Elusive Eggs

Unlike species that nest at night and may wander around under cover of darkness for a few hours looking for just the right spot, the Kemp’s Ridley lays eggs in the daytime. To elude predators, the turtles get in and out of the water as fast as they can, sometimes within 30 minutes. They also generally nest in large numbers at the same time (in what is called "arribada" nesting), so there’s a lot going on at once in a very large area.

"We’ve got 80 miles of beachfront that we’re patrolling every day," says Dr. Donna Shaver, chief of the park’s Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery. "They can slip in and out between patrols."

Because they can’t catch all the turtles in the act, park employees try to follow tracks in the sand to the nests, but that’s not as simple as it sounds.

"It’s the smallest and lightest sea turtle, so they don’t leave a very deep track in the sand," Shaver says. "Another reason it’s challenging is that they tend to nest on windy days, so the tracks blow away quickly." So even with all their experience and training — and day after day for months spent probing the sand with sticks trying to locate nests — park staff could never find all the turtle eggs.

"We’d see the tracks, but they’d end in the soft sand," Shaver says. "After all the work we’d done, we were just heartsick to walk away from these sites knowing there might be eggs there and we [couldn’t] protect them."

"Find the Nest!"

Eventually Shaver had an idea for how to find those last few nests, and in 2005, she got Ridley Ranger, a Cairn Terrier puppy.

"We started training him with ‘find the treat’ from the time he was a pup," she says. "He likes to eat, so he was very motivated."

Then Shaver exposed him to the work she was doing.

"He came out to the beach and saw when we found a nest and got to sniff around what the nest chamber smelled like," she says. "He watched as I placed the eggs in the incubation box, and he just sat there fascinated, enthralled by the process."

Shaver taught Ridley the word "nest" as she was retrieving the eggs from the beach. "So then instead of ‘find the treat,’ it was ‘find the nest,’" she says. She also brought the dog back to the turtle lab, where she could work on reinforcing his response to the smell of eggs: "We’d say ‘find the nest,’ and he’d go find the box [with the eggs in it]."

Ridley’s first real find came when he was only a year old, in 2006, although Shaver didn’t get to see it. She was 30 miles away on another beach, and Ridley was lounging at home. "My fiancé was called by my staff, who were frantic — there was a site they were looking at for about five hours unsuccessfully," she recalls. "He went out with Ridley and found it very quickly. They called me over the radio, and I was just ecstatic. It proved that he could do it. And he was really proud of himself."

Safe Hatching 

Why collect the eggs? For more than 30 years, the national park has served as a protected nesting site for the Kemp’s Ridley, which nests in larger numbers in Mexico, to safeguard the species from extinction in case anything happens to the sites there.

"The Padre Island National Seashore has very similar characteristics to the beaches in Mexico," says National Park Service biologist Cynthia Rubio. "Our beaches are very narrow and have lots of vegetation and tall dunes."

It’s believed that these features are attractive to the sea turtles because the shorter distance to the base of the dunes means less time out of the water in broad daylight. But the turtles don’t return to their nests to guard them, and the eggs don’t have much chance when left alone.

"Because of our narrow beaches and high tides, if the eggs are left on the beach, they can be inundated by tides," Rubio says. Also, the driving that is allowed on Texas beaches can harm the eggs, but the park needs to allow continued access for recreation. Collecting the eggs also keeps them safe from predators and ensures a much higher survival rate. Eggs left in nests on the beach have a zero to 30 percent chance of making it through the season unscathed.

Along with nests from other parts of Texas, the park service cared for 118 nests this year — thousands of eggs at a time. Being born in human care doesn’t interfere with the turtles’ wild nature because they don’t stick around after hatching. It’s important to let them go right away.

"As soon as they hatch, they go into this burst of energy they have for several days that they need [so they can] make that long trip down the beach into the water and then swim offshore for several days until they find large mats of seaweed," Rubio says. "So we release them immediately."

Ridley’s Relationships

Ridley is Shaver’s family pet, but Rubio and the dog have a very special relationship.

Before coming to Padre Island, Rubio worked at the nesting sites in Mexico. "When Dr. Shaver hired me for this job, one of the main reasons was for my skills in finding hard-to-find nests," she says. "When she talked about bringing on Ridley Ranger to help find nests, I was so shocked. And she said, ‘Don’t worry — he won’t take your job away!’"

Now, Rubio says, she’s proud of Ridley, and it’s clear he loves his job. And it’s no wonder: It’s a lot easier than hers. Ridley is brought out only once in a while, when everyone else has exhausted their ideas.

"After we’ve tried everything for hours and we can’t find the nest, then we’ll bring him out and use his skills," Rubio says. "He immediately knows he’s in work mode. He gets into that pose, dragging his nose in the sand, then stops and paws and sits and waits for his treat — and sure enough, the nest is right there."

The staff then does the hard work of digging in the Texas heat, and Shaver says, "Sometimes he watches, and sometimes he’ll go back to the air-conditioned vehicle and watch out of the window."

The rest of the time, he’s waiting in the comfort of home to be called to duty. "He doesn’t have long hours," Shaver says. "He’s chauffeured up there; he works for a few minutes. He’s a family pet the rest of the time. He has the run of the house and gets up on the furniture."

Shaver thinks that’s part of why the relatively informal training process worked. "I think there is an element of [wanting] to please me; he knows how happy it makes me and how important it is to me," she says.

But it’s not just Ridley’s work that pleases Shaver: It’s also watching him bark out the window at birds and wag his tail when his companion Kayleigh gets attention. "He’s spoiled, but he’s not bratty about it," she says. "He brings a lot of joy."

Visit Ridley’s Facebook page.

For more information about the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, check out the National Park Service’s Sea Turtle Science and Recovery program and Sea Turtle Inc.

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