Conserve Wildlife Foundation Is Notching Terrapins for Study

Jun 18, 2016
Photo by: Pat Johnson Intern Carly Sibilia notches a female diamondback terrapin for a permitted study by the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. Though her mouth is open, the turtle is not hurt by shallow notches.

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey received a $5,000 donation on Friday from Absolutely Fish, a premier retail aquarium center in Clifton. CWFNJ Habitat Program Manager Ben Wurst said the check would help to facilitate a number of local diamondback terrapin projects, including a new study it is doing to notch the shells of terrapins on Great Bay Boulevard in Little Egg Harbor in order to track their survival rates through the years.

Great Bay Boulevard is a 5-mile road that runs through the state’s Great Bay Boulevard Wildlife Management Area and ends at the Rutgers Marine Field Station and the Little Egg Harbor Inlet. The road is surrounded by 5,500 acres of pristine salt marsh bisected by brackish creeks, the perfect habitat for the species. The road has always been a popular fishing spot and more recently, with increased development at the beginning of the road, a popular hiking, biking and jogging destination. Birders and kayak enthusiasts round out the road’s users.

The road was chosen as a project site because between May and July, a large number of terrapins cross it to reach sandy areas along the road’s shoulders, where they make their nests. Many do not make it.

Wurst and his volunteers have tracked the terrapin road kill on Great Bay Boulevard since 2010. In 2012, a boom year, they counted 1,027 live terrapins that they helped to cross the road and 36 crushed by cars.

In 2014, they had fewer volunteers and counted just 342 live, but the road kill stayed level at 35.

Last year with a renewed push for volunteers, they counted 801 terrapins and 34 dead. In 2015, the Great Bay Boulevard Terrapin Conservation Project logged 137 volunteer hours and decreased the mortality rate from vehicles to 4.76 percent, half the rate in a 2005 scientific study not done by CWFNJ.

On Friday, Absolutely Fish staff members Glenn Laborda, Dibyarka Chatterjee and Kristen Schmicker joined Wurst and CWFNJ Executive Director David Wheeler, CWFNJ interns, photographer Corrine Henn and Carly Sibilia, plus terrapin project volunteer Sharleen Roberts at the First Bridge park on Great Bay Boulevard.

Laborda said Absolutely Fish customers loved seeing the pet terrapin that the foundation loaned for the store’s annual Earth Day weekend sale in April. The terrapin was given to CWFNJ after it grew too large for its owners. It is illegal to keep wildlife as pets, but CWF has a permit that allows it to use them for education purposes.

Absolutely Fish offers customers a VIP discount card if they donate to its annual conservation causes, and that was how the company raised $5,000.

Two years ago, the aquarium retailer also donated funds and volunteers to fence part of Great Bay Boulevard to keep terrapins from crossing a part of the boulevard where most of the lethal car/terrapin encounters happen.

Wurst said part of the donation would help pay for Sibilia’s expenses as she participates in the terrapin shell-notching program. Sibilia is a biology major from the University of Richmond, and will be working alongside volunteers as they help terrapins cross the boulevard. Before letting the terrapins go on the other side, she would intercept them for about 15 minutes to take stock of the terrapin’s health and then notch the outside shell for identification.

Since Friday was a beautiful day on the marsh and warm, she was assured of spotting a terrapin or two crossing the road. Sure enough, at the second bridge, a healthy female was spotted and intercepted. Sibilia and Wurst went into terrapin notching mode.

First the terrapin was checked to see if she was already fitted with another identifier, a PIF internal tag, like those used to identify pets. She was found to be without ID. After she was measured from all sides and weighed, Sibilia got out a felt tip pen to mark where she would be notched in accordance with a code identifying their project. On a paper outline of a shell, the small scoots along the outside of the shell, small plates of shell that ring the outside, were marked in alphabetic order. The code was CWFNJ, so Sibilia marked the actual scoots according to the code drawn on paper. Then she got out a standard file and began notching the five scoots. The terrapin had her mouth open in defense during the whole procedure but didn’t try to leave Sibilia’s lap. “She’s being really good; she’s not trying to get away like a lot of them do,” said Sibilia.

After checking to see if the terrapin was “gravis” (still full of eggs) by putting her finger inside the shell by the leg, Sibilia found she was. The terrapin was put on the side of the road where she was attempting to go when she was picked up.

“It’s important when you are moving a terrapin off the road to put them in the direction they were going; otherwise, they will just turn around and try to cross the road again,” said Wurst.

This was the second year patrolling Great Bay Boulevard for terrapin project volunteer Sharlene Roberts. She couldn’t remember outright just how many she had helped cross the road but did remember one day last July when she moved 84.

Besides road accidents, some other threats to terrapins are abandoned crab pots, predation of eggs by small mammals, crows and gulls, and a new threat: harvesting for export.

Wurst said recently a man was caught harvesting 3,500 terrapins by dredging them in winter from Absecon Bay for export to China.

“It’s still legal to catch terrapins. They have game status and a season (November to March), but you have to catch them by hand,” said Wurst. Recent patrols of Route 30 in Atlantic County near Absecon Bay have come up empty for signs of terrapins.

“New Jersey has designated the diamondback terrapin a species of concern but has not listed them as threatened or endangered,” said Wurst, “but legislation to remove them from game status is on the governor’s desk for his signature.”

Search for more information on the terrapin project and other conservation news on the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey’s websites.

— Pat Johnson

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