School Children Aid ‘Head Start’ for Diamondback Terrapins

Vulnerable Turtles Risk Auto Traffic to Survive
By PAT JOHNSON | Jun 27, 2018
Photo by: Pat Johnson ESTIMATING AGE: Marissa Thomasen shows Bass River School children how she measures the carapace of a terrapin for her data log.

Giving kids a head start in learning about nature is the point of Head Start Terrapins, a school course started by the Ocean County MATES program and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. Last October, Ben Wurst, CWFNJ project manager for Bass River and Balanger Creek, picked up seven quarter-sized baby diamondback terrapins from the roadside on Great Bay Boulevard, Little Egg Harbor Township.

“I knew they wouldn’t survive, because the water was too cold for the hatchlings,” he recalled on Tuesday. “So I gave them to the Bass River Elementary School as part of MATES’ Head Start. It gives the terrapins time to grow over the winter,” he said, referencing a program of the Ocean County Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Sciences.

The June sun was baking the road on Tuesday. Terrapins were coming out of the marsh in droves to cross to the sandy shoulders on Great Bay Boulevard. The boulevard passes through the state’s Great Bay Wildlife Management Area. It is one of the prime nesting areas for diamondback terrapins. But every spring, many are run over by cars and trucks that travel to the two or three marinas on the marshland road. Fishermen and bird watchers frequent the road for the abundance of nature all around.

Despite the number of Terrapin and Turtle Crossing signs, as well as volunteers who help the critters cross the road, there are still too many casualties.

Already this day, Wurst had found three dead terrapins that were crushed by wheels, yet he managed to salvage a single intact egg, which he expertly buried.

Wurst thought he knew who the unmindful driver was: perhaps an out-of-town delivery truck going to one of the marinas. “I’ll go and talk with the owner,” he promised.

Three dead terrapins and their lost eggs means the five Head Start terrapins the school children would be returning to the bay were not enough to come out ahead. However, the children did a good job raising their tiny charges; they are now the size of softballs. And the lessons the students would learn, plus the love of being outdoors on this school trip, would be priceless, Wurst knew.

Pauline Barber, a librarian from All Saints Catholic School in Manahawkin, was on hand as a terrapin volunteer, and CWFNJ intern Marissa Thomasen was ready to show how she notches the shells of adult terrapins to keep track of their viability from year to year.

Barber has volunteered as a “terrapin crossing guard” for a long time, she said. This morning she had already helped ten of them cross the road safely.

“It’s been a late year because of the cold weather, so they are really out today,” she noted.

Barber had also found a couple of egg casings that had been opened by predators.

“If they have a straight slit in them, they were predated by birds. And if they are torn apart, then it was a raccoon,” she told the children.

Barber also brought some turtle “scoots” to show them.

“The terrapins shed their shell scoots as they grow – like a snake does (its skin) – and you can count the rings on them, and tell the age of the turtle.”

Wurst said he asked Little Egg Harbor Township to stop mowing along Great Bay Boulevard because terrapins were getting injured. Township officials have cooperated.

“If I find one that has been injured,” Wurst said, “I take it to Popcorn Park Zoo (in Lacey Township) or MATES (in Manahawkin) or the Wetlands Institute (Stone Harbor in Cape May County), and they repair them – usually with epoxy or fiberglass, though I have heard of someone using a 3D printer to make a shell part.”

The Bass River School children were excited to help measure the three adult terrapins Wurst had brought from the side of the road, and to help with the data sheets.

“It’s important that you don’t move a terrapin too far from where it was born – and that goes for land box turtles, too. They only know the terrain around them for about a mile,” said Barber.

The children then released their little friends in the bay in the same spot where they had come from. It had been a successful field trip on a sunny, late spring day.

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