Hawaiian Teen Wins $10,000 for Research on Mysterious Outbreak Killing Sea Turtles

Maddux Alexander Springer, a dedicated Hawaiian teen, has made significant strides in understanding a mysterious disease affecting sea turtles. Unlike many high school students who may shy away from long-term projects, Springer devoted nearly three years to researching fibro papillomatosis (FP), disease-causing cauliflower-like tumors on green sea turtles. These tumors, while not directly fatal, can severely hinder the turtles’ ability to breathe and eat, leading to tragic outcomes. Springer first encountered the afflicted turtles during his free dives in Kāneʻohe Bay, Oahu, during the pandemic. Alarmed by the lack of extensive research on this issue, he took it upon himself to explore the disease’s prevalence and triggers. Despite initial setbacks, such as being denied permits to biopsy the tumors, Springer creatively utilized underwater motion-sensing cameras to survey the turtle population, uncovering that FP was widespread and possibly linked to the turtles’ diet of an invasive algae species, graciliaria salicornia.

Springer’s persistence paid off when he discovered that this invasive algae, which the turtles were consuming in large quantities, absorbed significantly more sewage compared to native algae species. Given Hawaii’s severe sewage leakage issue, with over 52 million gallons of untreated sewage entering the ground daily, Springer hypothesized that the algae’s high nitrogen content, converted to the amino acid arginine, was triggering FP in turtles. His innovative research, though not yet peer-reviewed, earned him the top prize in the animal sciences division at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, along with the prestigious Peggy Scripps Award for Science Communication, netting him $10,000. As Springer prepares to study marine biology at Oregon State University, he hopes his work will raise awareness of the urgent need for government intervention to address Hawaii’s wastewater management crisis. With the state aiming to replace all cesspools by 2050, Springer’s advocacy underscores the importance of timely action to protect both marine life and human health.

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