Terrapin Crossing
Diamond-back terrapin turtles are salt-water marsh turtles that lay their eggs on high ground adjacent to the marshes from May to July. Unfortunately the high ground is usually the causeways leading into the barrier islands, meaning the turtles are crossing the roadways at the peak of tourist season, with many of them being hit by passing vehicles. Turtle researchers from the Wetlands Institute on Stone Harbor Boulevard in Middle Township, are on patrol this time of year mending barrier fences and rescuing turtles before they are hit on the roads.

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP - When a diamondback terrapin was crossing the road on a recent morning, Amy Jordan had to be quick or it wasn't going to end well. Fortunately, she is.

Jordan, a student researcher at The Wetlands Institute and a college runner who recently graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, took off down Stone Harbor Boulevard amid a steady stream of car traffic. Jordan saved the turtle just in time from being crushed under the wheels of a car.

"I run cross country and just did a marathon. It's good training chasing turtles," said Jordan, returning with a large terrapin in her hand.

Patrick Baker, a zoologist and research scientist at the institute, instructed Jordan to take it to the laboratory where it could be checked to see if it has a microchip. The institute has put the chips in hundreds of terrapins over the past eight years to track them for research.

"Check for a chip and we can see if we've seen this turtle in the past," Baker said.

It's an annual rite of spring at the shore. Female diamondback terrapins leave the marshes looking for high, warm ground to lay their eggs. They have been doing so for ages, since long before causeways were built through the wetlands to provide access to barrier islands.

"The historic nesting area is dunes. The dunes are gone, and most of the barrier islands have been bulk-headed," Baker said.

A more recent annual rite of spring is having college students and institute volunteers try to save the turtles. The institute's Roger Wood has been working with terrapins since 1974, but a project to save them - by helping them cross busy highways, incubating the eggs of those who do not make it and, in some cases, repairing crushed shells - dates to 1989.

While more terrapins die in the water, mostly from drowning in crab traps or getting hit by boat propellers, road kills are a major source of mortality this time of year.

While Jordan was chasing down turtles on the roadway, another group of college students was installing plastic tubes along the side of the causeway that will present a barrier the turtles cannot cross. The institute has 10 college students working this summer.

The plastic-mesh netting that had been used in the past grew brittle too quickly and was broken by snow plows and gas-powered weed trimmers. The 8-inch black tubing performed well in an experiment along the causeway to Margate last year, so it is being installed in Middle Township as well.

"It will last longer and be more durable. The preliminary results are encouraging," intern Dan McLaughlin said.

Egg-laying will continue into July.

Placing the tubes is one of many efforts to save the turtles. Avalon does its own fencing. Wood said Cape May County has plans to install a barrier fence on Sea Isle City Boulevard. Upper Township used donations to fence Roosevelt Boulevard a few years ago, but the money ran out and one caller to The Press of Atlantic City said the fence has deteriorated and that she saw four turtles killed there in one day last week.

The terrapins are not an endangered species. Wood said New Jersey considers them a "species of special concern" worth monitoring to make sure they do not become endangered.

The crossings create more than environmental concerns, including auto accidents.

"It's a safety problem. People swerve to avoid the turtles," Baker said.

The institute patrols about 38 miles and generally finds between 400 and 700 dead terrapins each year. If an egg-laying surge occurs during a holiday weekend, Baker said "it's like a blood bath." Still, he noted thousands are believed to suffocate in crab traps each year.

The public seems to be more aware of the problems the turtles face.

"There are terrapins on the side of the road," a female motorist yelled as she drove by the students, pointing to the shoulder. Two were retrieved before they got into the road.

It doesn't help that nesting coincides with an increase in car traffic on the coast throughout the turtle's range, from Cape Cod, Mass., all the way south into the Gulf of Mexico. Baker said only one other state had a program to protect diamondbacks when the institute got involved and now every state in the range has some form of protection.

Another new development is saving the baby turtles that get caught in storm drains. Steve Ahern, an institute volunteer from Sea Isle City, said he personally "crossed," as they term it, 120 turtles last year over roadways. Ahern, however, said he and his wife, Susan, had rescued 395 baby terrapins from storm drains by the beginning of June.

"It's been pretty rewarding doing that," Ahern said.

The eggs normally take 60 to 90 days to hatch, but some left in the ground late in the summer will not emerge until the following spring. The Aherns have been saving the new hatchlings.

"You won't have adult females in the future if you don't save the hatchlings," Baker said.

The institute also has the Head Start Program through which it raises turtles to be released into the wild. Several area schools are participating.

Every year the effort seems to uncover new ways to save the turtles.

"We're learning each summer what works and what doesn't work," Baker said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

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