Naturalists at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary are welcoming the arrival of hundreds of baby diamondback terrapins, who have begun poking their wee heads out of their eggshells in nests scattered across Wellfleet and Eastham.
As many as 1,800 turtles or more could emerge on the Outer Cape by the end of the season, excellent news for a species listed as “threatened” in Massachusetts. In fact, sanctuary director Bob Prescott thinks this year’s turtle turnout could take the cake.
“We could exceed our record year this year,” he said, chalking the healthy numbers up to good weather conditions and persistent conservation efforts. There are about 200 nests altogether, he estimated. Some are located on the sanctuary grounds, some at Lieutenant Island and Indian Neck, and some in parts of Eastham. There’s a lone nest in Orleans.
Diamondback terrapins, named for the diamond-like facets on the ridges of their shells, live in salt marshes and their adjacent habitats and can be found in coastal locations from Texas to Wellfleet, which represents the northernmost extremity of their breeding range. They are under pressure from shoreline development, climate change and other coastal afflictions, and the sanctuary is working hard to make sure their population holds steady.
In the early summer, sanctuary staff go out into the field and place wire enclosures around the terrapin nests they find to protect the eggs from predators like skunks and raccoons. In late summer, when the eggs are getting close to hatch-time, they keep a close eye on them, moving nests that are in danger of being infested by red ants and maggots into the sanctuary’s wet lab, where the turtles can hatch in safety. (They’re later released.)
Or they might “escort” the nests from their upland locations down to the salt marsh, eliminating a leg of the journey the young turtles have to make after they’ve emerged, said Don “The Turtleman” Lewis, researcher and champion of the diamondback. It’s that first dash to the marsh that can be the most risky for the inch-big hatchlings, handy snack food for wild animals of all sorts.
Both Prescott and Lewis say there’s a direct relationship between the abundance of baby terrapins we’re seeing and the conservation effort.
“What we’re seeing is the dividends from all the hard work we’ve been doing for the last decade,” said Lewis, noting that the aggressive effort to protect the hatchlings got underway in 2000. The turtles take about seven or eight years to reach sexual maturity, so the big batches of eggs that have been produced over the last two years are evidence that enough of the hatchlings born in 2000 survived to make a difference.
In 2007, according to Prescott, about 1,800 terrapins were born — a significant swing up from the mere 200 born in a previous year.
More could be done to help the terrapins. The results of a turtle-tagging study conducted in partnership with the sanctuary by Barbara Brennessel, a professor at Wheaton College, show that the turtle habitat in need of protection might not necessarily be restricted to salt marshes.
“In reality, the hatchlings sort of amble around, and some go into the salt marsh but some go into the upland,” where they take cover under the leaf litter, Prescott said. For a long time researchers have thought that the turtles head straight for the salt marsh after hatching.
That heightens the importance of preserving the buffer zones around salt marshes, areas which are not guarded by local conservation commissions as carefully as the wetlands themselves.
“In reality, we need to be more protective of wooded habitats around salt marshes,” said Prescott. “It is vitally important that natural buffer zones be left intact.”
Source: The Daily News Tribune