MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Brian Williamson entered an aquarium room at the Wetlands Institute, sending dozens of tiny turtles scampering for cover in their terrarium.

The nonprofit institute off Stone Harbor Boulevard raises wild diamondback terrapins from eggs recovered from roadkill turtles. The baby turtles – adorable by reptile standards — go to classroom aquariums in schools across New Jersey for children to study during the school year to learn about wetlands wildlife. At the end of the year, teachers return the terrapins for the institute to release back into the wild.

This head start helps a species that is getting more attention in New Jersey, which might take the extraordinary step this year of protecting the little aquatic turtles from poachers, the pet trade and the supper table. Lawmakers passed a bill that would end the commercial harvest of terrapins by placing them in the category of nongame species. The bill also would require the state to study terrapin populations to ensure the species’ survival.

The bill unanimously passed the state Senate and Assembly and is awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s signature.

No one knows more about terrapins than the Wetlands Institute.

“It gives the babies a head start so they’re not at risk to so many predators,” said Williamson, of Lower Township, a research scientist with the institute.

The little sharp-clawed turtles are a common sight in South Jersey this time of year, both as quarter-sized hatchlings crossing bayshore roads and as saucer-sized adults looking for suitable nesting sites.

Terrapins were a diet staple of colonists who made stews from them in the 1700s. Terrapins gradually drifted off American dinner menus over the generations. Today, there is still a demand for terrapins in the pet trade and in some niche food markets, Williamson said.

The Wetlands Institute is the state’s authority on diamondback terrapins, but not even they know precisely how many of the aquatic turtles live in New Jersey. Terrapins spend most of their time in brackish back bays, but like sea turtles, come ashore to lay their eggs in the sand.

Here they face the most danger from passing motorists. Volunteers set up weighted plastic tubes along causeways to keep terrapins off roads.

Summer interns Wolf Trumbauer, 19, of Egg Harbor Township, and Addie Schlussel, 21, of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, monitor turtle nests.

Trumbauer said he grew up seeing terrapins every year in South Jersey.

“I thought it would be awesome to work with them. Help them out,” he said.

The interns salvage any eggs from roadkill adults, which are taken back to the institute’s incubator. In a neat trick, the institute can raise exclusively female turtles by turning up the heat on the incubator.

Temperature determines the sex of terrapins and other reptiles, including alligators. In a wild nest, the growing embryos of eggs closest to the sun-baked surface would become female while those buried deeper would become male.

This unnatural bias helps replenish the local population more quickly, Williamson said.

“Terrapins will return to the same beaches to nest year after year,” he said.

But Williamson said terrapins also drown in crab traps, despite rectangle-shaped excluder devices designed to keep the bigger adults out.

“They’re attracted to the same bait as the crabs. And they’re very inquisitive. They’ll check out traps that don’t even have bait,” he said.

The little turtles are endearing and beloved by many local residents, even if they do bite — and hard.

“They’re not as bad as snapping turtles, but terrapin beaks are designed to crack mollusk shells,” Williamson said.

Places like Reeds Beach post handmade signs urging motorists to slow down for the turtles. Often, drivers will stop to give crossing turtles a helping hand. They also serve as the mascot for the institute.

“It’s been pretty great the level support we’ve gotten for the project,” Director of Research Lisa Ferguson said.

Contact: 609-463-6712

Twitter @ACPressMiller

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