A short story from Tim Shields: As the 2011 field season in the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area drew to a close I had seen no sign of small tortoises. On a plot that had had 175 tortoises in 1979, I found only 17 in 60 days of searching, and the youngest of these was probably 15 years old. Where were the little guys? One day in May, a volunteer came to me to report that she had finally seen one. She clearly saw it waving its legs, trying to escape from the beak of the raven that was carrying it to its doom. That was the only juvenile tortoise we saw that year and it marked a turning point in my life.
Hardshell Labs was founded in response to the survival crisis facing the desert tortoise. Tim Shields spent 35 years documenting the decline of the tortoise and studying and thinking about its causes. In 2011 he shifted his focus to finding solutions. He started with trying to address the threat to tortoises posed by explosively growing raven populations and, while that has remained a core concern, our focus is broadening to include many other species in peril.
Here is the central lesson: the continued growth and refinement of technology constantly expands our ability to intervene on behalf of beleaguered wildlife. However, many biologists are technologically conservative and averse to dealing with gizmos. To them, the simpler the better. And, after careers of closely witnessing unfolding conservation catastrophes, most of them are pessimistic. Hardshell collaborates with a wide array of very creative gearheads who bring a can-do attitude to the tasks they tackle. To them, the conservation challenges that seem insurmountable to others are simply intriguing puzzles to be solved. The knowledge and expertise they bring from solving other tasks simply needs to be directed to helping wild creatures. And there is one other factor: they seem to love to use their talents to do good.
Roy Haggard has designed parachutes for soft-landing of radar arrays on Mars; devices and techniques for mid-air retrieval of spacecraft returning to Earth; inflatable buildings; and dozens of world championship wining hang gliders. He has been central to the development of the egg oiling drones and other devices we use for that effort. He led the team that created an internet connected desert rover for us, a project that has now received major funding.
Frank Guercio is 40 years Haggard’s junior and brings a very fresh perspective on design of conservation technology. He is particularly adept at the application of 3D printing to providing gear for us at low cost, and of more intriguing uses of the technique for influencing the behavior of wild animals. Currently, he is deeply involved in our project to place sensor pods in tortoise burrows, after having spent the spring building and maintaining REO equipment.
Haggard and Guercio share one thing in particular: both have fertile, creative minds that have generated dozens of good ideas for the application of emerging technology to conservation challenges.
Here are the conservation projects we are currently pursuing: