Project Terrapin: Diamondbacks released!

Bye-bye terrapins! Good luck! Students from Project Terrapin release
the terrapins they have cared for since last winter.
David is a member of the class of 2016 and an avid environmentalist. He spent last summer studying and working with piping plovers along the New Jersey coast as part of the EXP Signature Science program.

Wildlife conservation is an area of science that involves research, politics, and social behavior. To effectively protect a species, all of these areas must be addressed, and unfortunately, this is not often the case. From a political standpoint problems arise because the scientists who study endangered species are not the legislatures who are responsible for writing laws that protect natural resources. Socially, people rarely change their behavior unless it directly benefits them personally. It’s a hard bargain to convince the average person that it’s worth closing beaches to protect the Northeast Beach Tiger Beetle. Wildlife conservationists have the great challenge of bringing these three worlds together and making the argument that all life is worth saving. Here at Peddie, my friends and I are learning about these challenges through our work with the northern diamondback terrapin. The story of the northern diamondback terrapin is one of unfortunate circumstances but great hope.

In the late 1800s as many as 50,000 terrapins were harvested annually for human consumption in turtle soup. Terrapins were being eaten nearly to extinction. Females, being much larger than males, were the preferred target. With a huge percentage of the ovulating population removed from hunting, the rate of reproduction was significantly lower than the mortality rate. Terrapins were in a steep decline. However, in 1920, Prohibition coupled with the Great Depression saved the species. Turtle soup was made with wine. Without wine, restaurants stopped making it and people stopped eating it. Even those who didn’t mind the lack of wine in terrapin soup had trouble affording it because the price of terrapins increased. Consequently, the number of terrapins being harvested decreased dramatically, and the population began to recover.

Around the same time, beach resorts were becoming increasingly popular. In the late 1800s Cape May became the first beach resort in the United States. People were colonizing the barrier islands along the Atlantic coastline. Few understood the importance of the coastal ecosystem. Fewer voiced concern for it. Salt marshes were filled in to make way for construction. Barrier islands were covered with houses, condos, and hotels. People were selfishly taking and soon very little undisturbed land remained. New Jersey has approximately 130 miles of coastline. Of that, only 3 places along the Atlantic Coast remain undeveloped: Sandy Hook, Island Beach State Park, and Holgate. While people lost their appetite for turtle soup, their love for the ocean grew, and the terrapins seemed to have merely jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Diamondback terrapins live in estuaries: areas where fresh and salt water mix. For instance, Barnegat bay, where the Atlantic Ocean and Toms River meet, is an estuary. Salt marshes are very common in estuaries. They are the most biologically productive ecosystems on the planet, producing more biomass per acre than any other plant community. The salt marsh grass species decompose into organic matter called detritus. Species like mussels and fiddler crabs feed on detritus. Higher trophic level species then eat these detritivores. The diamondback terrapin is one such high trophic species. Few things can eat an adult terrapin. In the south, sharks are able to break through their hard shells, but in New Jersey, where sharks are less common, adult terrapins have little to no natural predators  ̶
but they do have humans.

Today, roads present the greatest challenge to terrapins. They often divide the salt marsh habitat from the breeding habitat. Females are faced with the impossible challenge of crossing. Very few manage to successfully lay a clutch of eggs, and greater challenges await the baby terrapins developing inside. Terrapins nest in sand, which is most abundant on barrier islands. With very little undeveloped land remaining on New Jersey’s barrier islands, females tend to make their nests in people’s yards. When the eggs hatch, the quarter sized hatchlings need to find their way back to the estuary. More often than not, the babies fall into storm drains and sewers where they die, or they become road kill. Those that make it back to the bay are often fed upon my gulls, raccoons, and foxes.

Despite the many issues challenging the survival of this species, it is still considered a game species by law, which means it cannot be formally added to the endangered species list. Informally, it is considered a species of special concern. While it may be hard for biologists to sell the idea of protecting the northeast beach tiger beetle or the timber rattlesnake (both endangered species in New Jersey), people love turtles, especially baby ones. Many organizations including Conservation Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and The Wetlands Institute have many conservation programs aimed at making the terrapin population in New Jersey healthier.

Dr. John Wnek, a science teacher in Ocean County, has been studying turtles for decades. His biggest research project involves the terrapins of Barnegat bay, specifically those that reside within the Sedge Island Marine Conservation Zone. Throughout the summer, he and his volunteers, many of whom are high school students, transplant terrapin nests that were laid in people’s yards along the barrier islands to fenced off hatcheries. Here they are protected from predators and from people. Most of the turtles are released after hatching (and after measurements are taken for scientific data). A select few enter a head start program.

This is where Peddie came in. A few friends and I took care of a nest of terrapins (10 brothers and sisters). These hatchlings happily swam in a tank in Dr. Peretz’s room throughout the winter and early spring. We fed them dry turtle food at first, and then as we switched to fresh seafood during the spring. In early June, we were able to release these terrapins back into the wild at Island Beach State Park. The purpose of this program is to give the hatchlings a head start on life. It is thought that a few months of growth in captivity away from potential predators can decrease the mortality rate of these turtles (although there is no definitive evidence on this yet).

The story of the diamond backed terrapin is one of sadness and great hope. The hope lies in a vast community of volunteers, like our group at Peddie, who take care of head start terrapins until they are ready to be released. The hope is in the researchers who are working to find enough scientific evidence that the terrapin should be removed from the game list and added to the species of special concern list. The hope is in the homeowners on Long Beach Island who call Project Terrapin when they have a female laying eggs in their yard, so the nest can be protected. The hope is in residents of the shore who drive with a little more caution during the breeding season, as not to kill a pregnant female.

Humans have the unprecedented ability to cause destruction in our world, but we also have the unprecedented ability to make positive change. Project Terrapin is one way students at Peddie are working to help the environment.