It’s finally summer and time to head to the shore with your friends! You all pack into one car (carpooling always!) and hit the road – the moment you’ve looked forward to for months. You’re cruisin’ down the boulevard with one goal in mind – feeling that warm sand and cool ocean breeze. What isn’t on your mind are the female diamondback terrapins crossing the road from one side of the marsh to the other in search of the perfect location to lay their eggs. All of a sudden, your speeding vehicle accidentally takes the innocent life of a mother terrapin. This is the all too predictable fate of hundreds of mother diamondback terrapins at the Jersey shore each summer. However, thanks to the research interns at The Wetlands Institute, her eggs may have a chance to be saved.
Diamondback Terrapin Conservation at the Wetland’s Institute
The Wetland’s Institute is a nonprofit organization focusing on wetland conservation and education in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. Every summer, a group of college students is selected to contribute to the institute’s ongoing research projects, as well as create and execute an independent project of their own. Two summers ago, I got the chance to be a part of this team and share my efforts to conserve the life of the wetlands and educate the public on what they can do to help.
A research intern’s primary responsibility at The Wetland’s Institute is to assist with the ongoing diamondback terrapin conservation project. One of the major components of the project are the road patrols. Three times a day, interns patrol a 38-mile transect of heavily traveled road in Stone Harbor and its neighboring towns. During these road patrols, interns scan the roads for terrapins attempting to cross the road, as well as terrapins that have been struck by cars. The majority of the terrapins encountered are females in search of a place to lay their eggs during the nesting season, which begins the first week in June and ends around mid-July.
Interns pick up terrapins that are crossing and safely help them to the other side. If they encounter a terrapin that has been hit, they stop to record several pieces of data. They note a descriptive location of where the terrapin was found, as well as GPS coordinates. They take measurements of its carapace (top shell) and plastron (hard underbelly), as well as count the number of the scutes to look for any irregularities. They also record where the terrapin has been struck. In the rare chance that the terrapin is injured yet still alive, they take it back to the lab where it would receive veterinary attention. If the terrapin is carrying eggs, they would take it back to the lab to perform what is called an ‘eggectomy.’ It is important that eggs are salvaged as close to when the terrapin was hit to prevent them from sitting out in the heat and from being eaten by hungry birds.
Back at the lab, the interns performed the ‘eggectomys,’ where they extract any intact eggs from the roadkill females. Once extracted, washed, and dried, they are incubated at 30° Celsius (86° Fahrenheit). Terrapins exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination, so incubating the eggs at 30° Celsius produces all female hatchlings. This female bias serves to offset the number of females killed by cars each year. The Wetlands Institute finds between 400 and 600 female road kills per year and salvages several hundreds eggs for incubation.
In August, when the incubated eggs begin to hatch, the hatchlings are released into the “head-starter” program. They are raised in controlled facilities at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. In their natural environment, terrapins will hibernate during the winter. However, at Richard Stockton, the head-starters are kept in 80° Fahrenheit conditions so that they reach size of a 3-4 year old terrapin much quicker than when in the wild. Once they have reached this size, the terrapins are inserted with a microchip in order to track their location for evaluation of the head-starter program. The terrapins are then released into the marsh to start their life on their own.
In addition to the road patrols, over the years, a combination of interns, volunteers, and staff at the institute have worked to install barrier fencing along a major section of road in Stone Harbor. The fencing began as an intern’s independent project in 2004. The barrier fencing tube is tall enough that it prevents the terrapin’s flat, wide body from scaling it in an attempt to cross the road. Currently, more than 11 miles of barrier fencing has been installed along busy roads running through the salt marsh.
The more aware the public becomes of wetlands conservation issues such as the diamondback terrapin populations in southern New Jersey, the more of a chance we have to make a real difference. To learn more about The Wetland’s Institute and its efforts, visit http://wetlandsinstitute.org/.