EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Bill Doughty creeps along the Margate Causeway at 15 mph, a line of cars behind him.
A bright yellow bumper sticker informs motorists that the SUV is patrolling for another slowpoke: the diamondback terrapin.
More than a century ago, the turtles were hunted nearly to extinction. Today, the killing fields are local roads carved out of the salt marshes where they’ve nested for eons.
“Some people really appreciate what we do. They’ll pull over and thank us,” Kim Lull says from the back seat. “Others, not so much. I get honks, gestures sometimes.”
Each summer, instinct drives the turtles to bury clutches of eggs on high ground, away from lethal tides and across the path of speeding traffic. A female diamondback can lay a dozen eggs as many as three times between May and August, but untold numbers of the turtles are run down before they can nest.
Doughty, a medical supply salesman, and Lull, a college student, are just two of the many researchers, volunteers and passers-by who mobilize each summer to help improve the odds. Across South Jersey, this diverse group is erecting fencing to keep the turtles off the road, using GPS and microchips to keep tabs on them and incubating orphaned eggs for release back into the wild.
Last week alone, the volunteer group Doughty coordinates transported three injured turtles from the causeway to local labs where they — or at least the embryos inside them — can be saved. Meanwhile, Lull records the GPS coordinates of each strike in an effort to help conservationists determine the most dangerous areas of the causeway and the most effective means to keep the turtles off it.
Like everyone who tries to protect the diamondback, their work is often grim.
“Let’s face it,” Doughty says. “No one wants to see dead sea turtles. If not for us, they’d be all over the road.”
Despite all the attention, the diamondback is not recognized as an officially protected species in New Jersey, though it has received such designations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Daniel Hernandez, a biology professor at Richard Stockton College, says the terrapin failed to receive such a designation because so little is known about the size of the population.
Hernandez hopes to change that.
For the past four years, he’s studied the diamondback population at the bayside enclave of Reeds Beach in Middle Township with his wife and field partner, Ilene Eberly. Since then, they’ve tagged 200 terrapins, 12 of which have later been detected again using an electronic reader.
“That tells me the population is large, but how do you know how much is large enough?” Hernandez says, scanning the beach for turtles. “What we want to know is how many are needed to be viable for our kids and grandkids.”
Hernandez’s laboratory is run out of the back of a Volkswagen with the help of several interns who learn about biology and conservation in the field. He charges the microchips and other supplies to his credit card.
The hope, Hernandez says, is to gather enough data that he can receive grants to continue research on a larger scale. That’s how he pursued his study of another threatened local species, the horseshoe crab. In the meantime, he doesn’t worry about the expense.
“If you think about it, you may find a reason not to do it,” he says. “And I don’t want to stop.”
The research is important, Hernandez says, because so much about the diamondback population remains a mystery. It could be reaching a tipping point without anyone even knowing it.
Mass-mortality events, particularly around the time that terrapin eggs are hatching, happen with enough frequency to be troubling. If they aren’t snatched up by predatory birds — “gull potato chips,” Hernandez deadpans — they are run over en masse by vehicles. While adult turtles are at least visible to attentive motorists, the quarter-size hatchlings are nearly impossible to see from the driver’s seat.
“You don’t see them unless you’re walking along looking for them, like us,” he says.
While they found only their tracks and two carcasses — one run over after they’d arrived — he typically tags turtles under their right hind leg. The chip will remain active for the turtle’s lifespan. That, combined with the tendency of female terrapins to return to the same nesting sites, means Hernandez will eventually have an accurate picture of the population.
Amid the carnage, however, there are moments of hope. Many of them take place at the incubation labs of the The Wetlands Institute in Middle Township and in John Rokita’s basement lab at Stockton.
Last week, a motorist found an injured turtle on the Margate Causeway on Tuesday, which she brought to Rokita’s lab. Although the turtle died from its injuries, its eggs were recovered from its uterus. The nine fertile eggs, which otherwise would have shriveled in the sun, now have the chance to hatch and mature in the relative safety of the lab.
For the first 60 days, the eggs will develop in a plastic container in a moisture- and temperature-controlled incubator. Because the terrapins don’t have chromosomes like humans, their sex is determined by temperature — males are produced at about 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and females at about 86. Stockton’s lab usually produces females, since they are the ones most often killed on the roads.
“Hopefully, we can replace the mothers that are killed,” Rokita says. “The males are pretty safe once they hit the water. The only thing that can get them, aside from predators, are crab traps.”
Once hatched, the terrapins spend 10 months to a year in containers that roughly approximate conditions in the wild, with heatlamps and water to swim in. Because they don’t go through hibernation that first winter, they’re typically three to four times the size of a normal 10-month-old turtle by the time they are tagged with microchips and released back into the wild.
“We’d like to think ours are more predator-proof,” Rokita says. “They have a little more body weight, so they may be better able to protect themselves.”
Back on the causeway, the volunteers plan to use the data they collect in planning next season’s fencing and, possibly, convince Atlantic County officials to pitch in on installing fencing for the entire length of the road.
“If you don’t cover every single inch, the turtles will find a way across,” Doughty says.
Before Doughty and Lull complete one leg of their patrol, they get word of a fresh terrapin strike back where they started. None of the three turtles they encounter that Wednesday is able to be recovered. At least one carried eggs, the yellow yolks smeared across the asphalt. Lull inputs the locations into the GPS device around her neck, and Doughty chucks the carcasses back into the bay.
“Back to where it came,” he says, wiping his fingers against a pant leg. “The cycle of life continues.”
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
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