To a diamondback terrapin, the black, rigid corrugated tubing along the Margate Causeway might look like a giant, insurmountable wall. But a female terrapin on the hunt for perfect nesting ground is rather determined to find it. Bill Doughty, a medical supply salesman and volunteer with the Margate Terrapin Rescue Project says they have what he calls “turtle superpowers.”
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Bill Doughty creeps along the Margate Causeway at 15 mph, a line of ca…
“They are so motivated and focused on nesting that they are stronger,” he said. “They can climb better, they can dig deeper, they can move faster, which results in sometimes the terrapin getting under the tube.”
The black tubing laid out along Margate’s Causeway was installed just a few years ago as a barricade for the turtles by Doughty and other volunteers, such as Kim Lull, a graduate student and researcher with the project. To lay their eggs, terrapins seek out high ground, away from tide waters. Before development on the barrier islands, the turtles would make the trek from bayside salt marshes to the sandy dunes to lay their eggs. Now, areas along some of South Jersey’s causeways have become prime nesting ground for terrapins- and right at the start of the busy tourist season. To combat that, barricades and fencing have been installed on roadways near salt marshes, but hundreds are still killed each year.
In Margate, terrapins will sometimes dig under the tubing — or occasionally try to climb over it — and cross the roadway. That’s why the group is looking to install a new, more effective half tubing barricade that is partially buried along the causeway, making a terrapin unable to climb or burrow under it. They currently are raising $7,500 to cover the costs. As a test run, a small portion the area between Dock’s Thorofare and the Whirlpool Bridge was laid with the half tubing in 2014.
“In that section where the half tubing is, there were no kills for last year,” Lull said. “It was very surprising. I had to double check my data a couple of times.”
The two head out to the causeway daily during nesting season, which begins in late May, on patrol for terrapins in the midst of crossing the roadways- and those that have been struck. Injured terrapins are sometimes able to be transported to the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, where they are nursed back to health. Sometimes, only their eggs are able to be saved, and are incubated at the institute as well.
Other times, they aren’t so lucky.
“The painful part about it is seeing the dead turtles,” Doughty said. “They are just smashed to smithereens. Their shells are fractured. There’s blood. Their eggs are smashed. Sometimes, they are half alive. Some of them would be on the roadside, half dead for 24 hours.” Last year, there were 87 strikes on the Margate Causeway — a significant drop from 2013, where there were 114.
If the funds are raised, the new barricade will be installed this May along a quarter-mile stretch of the causeway, from the Whirlpool Bridge to the Risley Bridge. That isolated area is one of the most dangerous for turtles on the causeway, and if they see major improvements there, Lull says they may be able to expand the project.
The Wetlands Institute is keeping an eye on the new barricades as well, researcher Brian Williamson said. The half tubing is already installed along Great Bay Boulevard in Little Egg Harbor, and they have seen similar results there.
“It’s something we are keeping tabs on, and if it’s something that works well, we definitely will consider installing it,” he said.
The Wetlands Institute patrols a portion of South Jersey roadways, between Stone Harbor to Strathmere and Ocean City. During their patrols, they counted 496 strikes last year during nesting season, which has been about the average each year, Williamson said. But, they were able to save 207 and nurse them back to health.
Despite the efforts to install barriers and help terrapins cross South Jersey’s busy causeways, Williamson says the Wetland Institute hasn’t seen a steady decline in roadway fatalities since it began its work 23 years ago. While that may sound discouraging, Williamson says that may actually be a good thing.
“That could possibly suggest that the terrapin population is larger than we thought or there are more hatchlings surviving to adulthood,” he said.
Researchers won’t know for sure though until a population estimate is completed, which the Wetlands Institute is in the process of completing. Last year, the Wetlands Institute also incubated 130 female terrapins and were able to release them into the wild, as part of a program to save viable eggs from terrapins killed on the roadways. Because the development of a terrapin’s sex is dependent upon temperature, researchers can also guarantee that all the hatchlings will be female.
Being able to save a terrapin, or its eggs, is what makes the work worthwhile to volunteers like Doughty and Lull.
“When you look at the ocean you talk about whales, dolphins, there are all sorts of seabirds out here,” Lull said. “Then you have these terrapins, these turtles, that are pretty defenseless when they are crossing these roadways.”
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