YOU MAY SEE a lot of wildlife when you’re down at the shore, depending on the season you visit. Usually, you see a few seagulls or are treated to dolphins swimming past at the beach. Other times, you may see foxes and starfish, or even some ducks crossing the road. If you visit New Jersey during late May through mid-July, you may see turtles. These turtles, known as terrapins because they live in estuaries (a mixture of freshwater and saltwater), cross the road to lay their eggs in the dunes.
But why? Why do they migrate out of where they live to put their lives in danger to lay their eggs? They’re kind of cute, but why do people go out of their way to help the terrapins?
“Finding a terrapin is a good sign; it means your area is healthy,” according to John Wnek, PhD, who founded Project Terrapin, located in Manahawkin, and is a supervisor of science and research at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science.
Essential to the ecosystem
“Terrapins are an important part of the ecosystem. Think about them as good indicators for the health of the salt marsh,” Wnek added.
Sea Island Terrapin Rescue in Sea Isle City is run by Susan and Steve Ahern. According to Susan, terrapins are important to the ecosystem. They are carnivorous; They’ll eat small fish, fiddler crabs, and bugs. They also have natural predators, like foxes, skunks, and raccoons. These predators made their way to the barrier islands from the mainland during Hurricane Sandy. It puts the terrapin eggs at a higher risk of not hatching.
Their other predator? Cars.
There were 700 mortalities last year in the wetlands patrol from Stone Harbor Boulevard to Corson’s Inlet. There were approximately 40 injured.
“I saw so many who had awful cracks in their shells and they go back [to live in the wild]. They’re amazing healers,” Susan said.
Wnek agrees that cars are a major threat to terrapins and feels lucky to not have seen a turtle hit so far this season.
So you see a turtle. What do you do?
Well, it depends.
“Safety first,” said Susan.
If you’re able and willing to stop your car and can safely help the terrapin across, you can do so. If you are out walking and see a turtle crossing the street, and you have the possibility of safely helping them get across, take them in the direction they are going. Terrapins know where they want to go; they just might have some problems getting there. Towns becoming more developed doesn’t help them either.
If you see a terrapin laying her eggs, or you see eggs, keep your distance. She needs space to lay her eggs. Those eggs won’t hatch for at least 60 days, according to Wnek. There’s most likely volunteers keeping an eye on the eggs and the hatchlings. Some hatchlings won’t come out of their nests and will brumate there. Terrapins need to lay their eggs above sea level so that they won’t get flooded.
These terrapins aren’t meant to be kept as pets; they are wild. When they hatch, they might be the size of a quarter. The mom won’t stay with the eggs; she will lay them and move on. There’s a possibility that female turtles go back to the same spot where they hatched to lay their eggs, but that hasn’t been completely proven.
“Finding a terrapin is a good sign; it means your area is healthy.” John Wnek
Fundraising plays a big part in funding studies to learn more about the terrapins.
Outreach and fundraising has been greatly diminished this year. Wnek has a program that places hatchlings that hatched later or had predated nests and need some extra help, into classrooms ranging from older elementary schools children to high school.
This year they had seven or eight hatchlings, but they’ve had as many as 15 to 20. These students will take care of them from October until the end of May. The hatchlings will come with heat lamps and a prescribed diet. Once they are given back, the hatchlings are held for two weeks to be checked out, and then they are released in mid-June. Due to school closings, some of the terrapins were returned early, but others were able to be cared for. Once they come back, their shells will be notched to mark them. They will also be PIT tagged; it’s like a microchip. Both are done because the PIT tag can disintegrate once the turtle is deceased. They have seen turtles that they’ve tagged, notably in Maine where someone had one illegally. They’re working to see if they can get it back to this area.
Project Terrapin relies on tourism for fundraising.
Wnek stated, “We have a program that gets people involved, which is really important. People not being able to be involved is a big concern for us. Gathering is a big part of education. If you can’t do that in a certain way, it’s a big issue. When you get tourists down for the summer, that’s when the turtles are active and they’re more willing to support you.”
Not all events can be rescheduled. Terrapin season doesn’t shut down because of a pandemic. In light of global warming, the terrapins need all of the support that volunteers can give them. A trend that Ahern is noticing is that the warmer eggs in the nest (those on the top) are female. The colder ones are male.
“We just wonder how it’s [global warming] going to affect them, just generally.,” she said. “The really interesting thing about terrapins is that we don’t know if they’re boys or girls until they come out of eggs but we know when they’re two years old. Warmer eggs become girls. Cooler eggs on the bottom are boys. If there’s less boys, will that affect the population?”