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WPI Students Create Breakthrough Prosthetic Sea Turtle Flipper

BOSTON (CBS) – A team of Worcester Polytechnic Institute students helped develop a prosthetic flipper for a sea turtle in a technological advancement they hope can save more turtles in the future.

The engineering students used inexpensive 3-D printing to create the first ever hydrodynamic biomimetic right fin for a Kemp's ridley sea turtle named Lola.

"Flipper damage is the most common injury in sea turtles and, unfortunately, we see it all the time," said Douglas Mader, a veterinarian at Key West Aquarium.

"But with the technology the WPI students developed, this new flipper design will allow this sea turtle, Lola, and other injured turtles to be rehabilitated and live a more normal life. That's important for the species, especially when the injured turtle is of breeding age."

Kemp's ridley sea turtles are considered critically endangered.

Lola was found stranded in the Gulf Mexico with fishing line wrapper around her front flipper in 2002. She was rehabilitated and released, but stranded again two days later.

The turtle has been cared for by aquariums since then. Because of her missing flipper, Lola could only swim in circles and had discomfort while feeding.

Turtle Prosthetic
Students at WPI hope their prosthetic fin will help save turtles in the future. (Image Credit: Rob O'Neal)

While researching their senior capstone project, students Iok Wong, Samantha Varela, and Vivian Liang contacted the Key West Aquarium with their plans to help.

The WPI students chose various shapes of flipper and tested each inside a wind tunnel before settling on the final design.

This prosthetic design is unlike any other because it is biomimetic, mimicking the way Lola's healthy flipper works.

Wong and Varela traveled to Key West to fit Lola with her new flipper last week. According to Mader, Lola adapted to the flipper almost immediately and began swimming smoothly.

"Lola is a very young sea turtle, of breeding age, but with her amputation stressing her remaining limbs, her life expectancy was shortened," said Wong, who graduated in May with Varela and Liang.

"Our work focused on Lola but we hope our partners at Key West Aquarium and other rescue centers will use our design to help other turtles rebound after similar injuries, which may help sustain the population of Kemp's ridley sea turtles."

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