Shell Shocker: Engineering students design prosthetic flipper for sea turtle amputee in Key West

(WSVN) - We’ve all heard of a prosthetic leg — for a person. But what about a prosthetic flipper for a sea turtle? Yes, it’s real, thanks to a partnership stretching from New England to the Keys. 7’s Belkys Nerey has our special assignment report, “Shell Shocker.”

Remember Winter? Not the season – the dolphin!

Winter lost her tail in a crab trap and was fitted for a prosthetic to replace it.

The amazing story of this bottlenose dolphin was featured in the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.”

Morgan Freeman (as Dr. Cameron McCarthy in “Dolphin Tale”): “Trying to put a tail on a fish, nobody in his right mind would even try it. Luckily, I’m not…”

Nathan Gamble (as Sawyer Nelson): “Not what?”

Morgan Freeman (as Dr. Cameron McCarthy): “In my right mind.”

Winter got her tail. Now, watch the tale of Lola the sea turtle.

Greg Gerwin, Key West Aquarium: “The fishing line was wrapped around so tight it actually cut off the circulation.”

Lola’s right front flipper had to be amputated after she was found stranded off the coast of Texas in 2002.

Since 2007, she has lived at the Key West Aquarium. And it’s not easy to move around her tank with a missing flipper.

Greg Gerwin: “It made it kind of difficult for her. She’s actually hugging the wall and moving herself across the wall with that stump and dragging it.”

That’s where these three engineering students come in.

Studying 1,300 miles to the north at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, their senior project was to make for Lola what was taken from her.

Lok Wong: “We saw that there is no research being done, so that motivated us to take a stab at it, literally. See what we can do to contribute to something that will actually help.”

The students used measurements of Lola’s good flipper to create a three-dimensional model of her missing one.

Samantha Varela: “We actually 3D-printed the flipper shape, and we made a mold of out of it with silicone. It’s basically like a popsicle stick kind of concept.”

The design was tested in a wind tunnel for performance and to predict how it would mimic Lola’s natural swimming pattern.

Lok Wong: “Similar aerodynamic forces apply, so that’s why you can compare the forces generated in wind and water.”

Vivian Laing: “We had to analyze her healthy flipper, then try to match that synthetically, and that is why it was so different.”

The result of their year-long project was a first-of-its-kind design.

But would it pass the real test?

Greg Gerwin: “There’s always a little bit of concern when you put any kind of prosthetic on a wild animal. You’re not absolutely certain how it’s going to go; you try it.”

A sleeve is put on Lola first, then the purple silicone prosthetic is attached using wet suit material.

Once on, it took Lola a few minutes to get moving. But soon…

Greg Gerwin: “She surprised all of us. She took to that prosthetic like she owned it. She can actually use both flippers and use that thrust to move herself forward.”

The students got to meet Lola for the first time last month, when she was fitted with their design.

Samantha Varela: “That was awesome. The goal was to improve her quality of life.”

Dr. Doug Mader is Lola’s veterinarian. He says this new tool could be particularly helpful for turtles missing multiple flippers.

Dr. Doug Mader: “Next time we get into a double amputee, instead of having to euthanize that animal, we could fit it with two prosthetics and then find a home for it, and then that animal would be an ambassador for sea turtles wherever it ends up.”

The aquarium will continue to work with students at the institute to perfect the prosthetic prototype.

For more on Lola’s story and a wild online extra with video of other species at the Key West Aquarium, click on the links below.


More on Lola:

Key West Aquarium

Animals of the Key West Aquarium

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