If the students studying at the Wetlands Institute in Middle Township had to make their own bumper sticker, it would probably say, "I Brake for Diamondback Terrapins."
Throughout the summer, students from universities across the world gather at the Institute on Stone Harbor Boulevard in Middle Township and work on research projects aimed at making sure the diamondback terrapin, the only turtle in North America that spends its entire life in brackish or slightly salty water, is around for a long time.
Beyond the research, though, chances are if you are driving around Cape May County, especially near marshlands that run along shore resort towns, you will see these students helping the turtles cross the road, or keeping them from crossing in the first place.
The researchers have a signup sheet. They put on their bright orange vests and head out in teams at midnight, 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. looking for turtles.
"It's not too bad in the morning," said Ceili Bachman, 21, a senior biology major at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Pomona section of Galloway Township. "When traffic backs up, we try to let everybody go around us."
If the turtle is alive, the team helps it get to the other side. If it's not, and it's a female, the team retrieves it, attempts to rescue any eggs it might be carrying, and takes them to be incubated at Stockton.
The teams also repair areas of fences, something that is keeping them especially busy after several stretches of the fences were damaged or destroyed by the harsh winter storms that hit the region in February.
When the researchers are not out doing their rounds to save turtles outside the institute, they are testing different hypotheses inside the institute's research facility.
Bachman is comparing the terrapins outside of the Wetlands Institute with those in the Meadowlands of northern New Jersey.
"There's more likely more pollution up there," Bachman said. "But the female-to-male ratio is probably higher up there because they aren't getting
hit by cars as much as they
are down here."
Females tend to be the ones that do most of the moving from marsh to marsh, which is why they are at the greatest risk.
One research intern is studying the idea of whether temperature plays a role in determining whether a male or female pops out of an egg when they hatch.
"The ideal population is 5:1 of females to males," said Lauren Westley, a 19-year-old sophomore biology major at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
Westley has been able to find a number of females attempting to lay eggs on paths that run just outside the Institute. If she retrieves the nests within the first 24 hours, Westley can study the eggs without causing them any harm.
Research at the Wetlands Institute has even gotten some national attention lately because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Niveen Ismail, a biology graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia, is studying the effect of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, on terrapins. PCBs are toxic chemicals that were used in electrical equipment and were banned in the 1970s. People are now eager to know how toxic chemicals might be affecting terrapins and other creatures in the gulf.
"It's funny how people just started suddenly contacting me," Ismail said.
The good news is that those chemicals are not a problem around the marshes in Cape May County. Ismail is still studying them, but only because she needs a basis of comparison.
"This is my pristine site," Ismail said.
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To learn more
In addition to studying and rescuing turtles, the Wetlands Institute has a number of programs that run throughout the year, including many events that families can participate in during the summer. For more information, visit the Wetlands Institute's website at www.wetlands