New Jersey kids help save endangered turtles

Who says schoolchildren can't make a difference? Here's a group that is!

The 5-year-olds proudly wore T-shirts that read "SLOW ... Turtle Crossing" across the front. The class from the Avalon/Stone Harbor combined kindergarten near Stone Harbor, N.J., had made and sold turtle-shaped cookies at their school to do their part to help save the terrapins, endangered reptiles that live in the nearby salt marshes. (A terrapin is a type of turtle.)

They and many other area schoolchildren have become involved in a hands-on terrapin research and conservation program at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.

I met the terrapin-loving students when I visited the Wetlands Institute to find out about the work being done there.

"Watch out for those jaws!" Roger Wood, director of the institute's Terrapin Conservation Project, warned me as a baby terrapin squirmed in my hand.

At home in salt marshes

I had just picked up the small turtle. Its head and hind webbed feet were making constant thumping motions against my fingers.

Terrapins are the only reptiles of the salt marsh, an area where saltwater from an ocean, bay, or gulf meets freshwater from a river. They are found in temperate and subtropical areas such as the East and Gulf coasts of the United States.

Terrapins also live in western India and southern Asia. They do not naturally occur in fresh water. This is one of the reasons they do not make good pets.

While most people like terrapins, the tiny turtles have had great trouble with humans. A hundred years ago, they were eaten as a delicacy.

Nowadays, many of them die trying to escape from commercial crab traps. They find their way into the traps, but are unable to get out, and so may drown.

There's good news from scientists at the institute about this, though: They have developed a wire excluder device to fit into the crab traps. This keeps terrapins out, but allows crabs to enter.

Terrapins face dangers from other animals, too. Crows and raccoons attack them. Skunks like to dig into their nests and eat the eggs.

If all that weren't enough, the building of seaside vacation homes and resorts has resulted in the loss of beaches and marsh grasses, where terrapin nesting typically takes place.

However, it's the female terrapin that is in the greatest danger. During June and July, she plods along the New Jersey shore seeking out higher ground on which to lay her eggs (typically eight to 10 per nest). Female terrapins like to build their nests on sand dunes or narrow reaches above the high tide line.

"Unfortunately," Dr. Wood says, "cars kill as many as 40 terrapins a day before they can reach the nesting areas."

That can mean the daily loss of 300 to 400 eggs that will never become terrapins. So every 24 hours, a patrol car from the Wetlands Institute searches the highway for terrapins that have been run over.

From rescue to hatching

In addition to rehabilitating injured adult terrapins, scientists rescue the eggs from killed females and take them back to the institute, where they are incubated. That means placing them in a warm spot that imitates the mother's warmth.

The future terrapin's sex is determined by the temperature during incubation. If the temperature is kept at 86 degrees F., females will be produced in six to eight weeks. Males are produced in two to four weeks at a cooler 78 degrees F.

Dr. Wood showed me a large plastic box with a fitted lid that looked much like Tupperware.

"This," he said with a grin, "is our high-tech incubation system,"

Inside, the eggs, about 1-1/2 inches long and placed three inches apart, rested upon four inches of vermiculite, a soft mineral used for insulation and in gardening, During the incubation process, it's kept moist at all times.

After hatching, the young turtles don't eat for several weeks due to a built-in food supply from their mothers.

When the time comes to give them food, the babies are fed a combination of chopped- up minnows, mealworms, and Purina trout chow. (It may sound awful to kids, but to turtles, it's delicious!)

Later the turtles are deliberately kept from hibernation. This makes them hungry and speeds up the growing process.

The hatchlings stay at the institute for nearly a year. This is called headstarting. During this time, their shells grow to about two to three inches long.

Back home they go

When the terrapins are that size when released, they are better able to deal with enemies than they would be if they were released as soon as they have hatched.

Each year, some of the eggs are taken to local elementary schools, where students in upper grades construct incubators for them. The children grow attached to the terrapins that hatch from the eggs and even give them names.

About 80 percent of these hatchlings survive the headstarting process to be released back into the salt marshes by the children.

Before being released, the small terrapins are weighed, measured, and marked with a microchip tag. The tag enables scientists to track the terrapins' movements and their nesting sites. Most nest very close to where their mothers nested.

After a brief introduction by Dr. Wood, the kindergartners marched to the dock. Adults showed them how to carefully release the turtles. There were many "oohs" and "aahs" as the little turtles disappeared into the wetlands.

After seventh-graders from the Jordan Road Elementary School in Somers Point, N.J., released a dozen terrapins, they gave the institute a check for $100. This was money they had raised through the sale of homemade "turtle" candy.

A group of Quinton Elementary School fourth-graders has also become involved in the project, raising 10 hatchlings for release back into the salt marsh.

For these children, it was a muddy march at low tide to the Wetlands Institute dock. There, amid cheers, the children released the headstarters.

Every year approximately 250 headstarters are released in the vicinity of the institute.

What other kids can do

Local children have become quite savvy about the care of terrapins. They are quick to point out that you do not disturb terrapins in any way while they are nesting.

If you should find a terrapin on the road, the best thing to do is pick it up gently and carry it across the road in the direction that it's already headed.

It is especially important not to attempt to take an adult or hatchling terrapin home for a pet, because they survive only in salt marshes. Also, residents of New Jersey who do so would be breaking the law.

The children of Stone Harbor are proud of the work they do in helping the terrapins to live. And, as another summer season approaches, the cycle begins anew.

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