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Youngster gets $10,000 cash prize for finding the cause of tumors among sea turtles in Hawaii

A high school boy was given a big cash prize for researching what was causing tumors among sea turtles in Hawaii.

Youngster gets $10,000 cash prize for finding the cause of tumors among sea turtles in Hawaii
Representative Cover Image: Pexels | Belle Co

Pollution harms the ecosystem in both direct and indirect ways. It has significantly harmed sea animals, leading to a rise in illnesses and deaths. High school student Maddux Alexander Springer from Oahu recently won a $10,000 cash award at the nation's prestigious science fair for his work helping sea turtles in Hawaii. During the pandemic, Springer spent most of his free time diving in the blue waters near his home in Oahu, according Business Insider. He only had to walk a short distance to Kāneʻohe Bay, which is where he usually went for free diving.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Richard Segal
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Richard Segal

Springer spoke about how the activity made him feel like an "alien." He said, "You're just there by yourself in this environment that you don't belong in." Although he enjoyed diving, he began to notice something concerning in the pristine waters. He continued to see green sea turtles that had very noticeable cauliflower-like tumors on their body. Springer revealed how these "gross masses" would be in a variety of sizes, sometimes even engulfing the entire turtle.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Jeremy Bishop
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Jeremy Bishop

It was depressing to see these turtles slowly dying from the tumors. The high schooler decided to look for a solution and a quick Google search gave him a good idea of what was going on. The turtles in the area had fibropapillomatosis (FP), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, scientists had no idea what was causing the disease to spread so quickly. 

These were the humble beginnings of Springer's two-and-a-half-year research project into saving the turtles. The presence of green sea turtles plays a key role in the health of reefs around the world. They keep a healthy balance in the ecosystem by eating the algae that would otherwise suffocate the coral if it were allowed to grow. FP is a big threat to marine systems everywhere. Springer emerged victorious when he was able to find the primary reason why the disease had spread so quickly among turtles in Oahu. 

David Dibert
Representative Image Source: Pexels | David Dibert

He initially tried to get permits to perform a biopsy on the turtles' tumors, but he was unsuccessful. Springer did not let this setback get to him and opted to go for a non-invasive way to find a solution for the turtle's tumors. So, he installed a motion-sensing underwater camera to take photos of the green sea turtles. This allowed him to recognize that FP was a very big problem with turtles in the area.

Springer discovered that the turtles had high concentrations of the amino acid arginine. He then began to look at the turtle's food source, which was mainly algae and they were not very picky eaters. Most of the algae in the Kāneʻohe Bay was found to be invasive. This species of algae is particularly great at absorbing sewage. So, he surmised that there was probably a very large amount of sewage coming into the ocean. This sewage came into the water body from cesspools that people had behind their houses to collect wastewater.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Francesco Ungaro
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Francesco Ungaro

These pits had no barriers, allowing contaminated water to seep into the soil and eventually into the ocean. Springer then spent a lot of time going on dives to collect samples to prove his hypothesis. A lab test with a mass spectrometer showcased that algae were absorbing wastewater. The solution for this problem, according to Springer, is to remove cesspools and move wastewater to proper treatment facilities. He hopes that his research will warrant more action on this issue and will continue to study as a marine biology major at the University of Oregon.

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