Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Turtle-associated Salmonella

GateHouse News Service

I thought by now, with all of the publicity it has received, that most people would be aware of the association between small turtles and salmonella infections.

Because it is such a serious medical issue, the sale of small turtles was banned by the federal government in 1975. This ban applies to turtles whose shell measures less than 4 inches.

However, these small turtles are still available and are present in many homes throughout the country. They are being sold in pet stores, flea markets and online. Some are brought home by Junior after finding a turtle in his backyard.

Turtles are also sold by street vendors. Recently, in Baltimore, police seized 96 small turtles that were being sold illegally in the city streets.

The ease of getting these turtles creates a serious health problem.

It has been estimated that 11 percent of all salmonella infections in young people are associated with exposures to turtles and other reptiles.

A salmonella infection can be very serious, sometimes even fatal. Symptoms include diarrhea, which can be severe, requiring intravenous fluids. Also present are vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps.

A recent article reported the largest outbreak of turtle-associated salmonella infections in the United States. Most of the infections involved young children. The majority of parents who bought the pet turtles were unaware of their association with salmonella infections.

To prevent these serious infections, the present laws against purchasing them must be enforced.

The media must give greater attention to this issue and help educate the public about the relationship between turtles and salmonella infections.

Consider yourself now educated.

Most salmonella infections are not due to contact with turtles, but are secondary to eating food that is contaminated with this bacterium. Salmonella is present in the gastrointestinal tract and as a result of poor hygiene, such as infrequent hand washing by people who prepare food, the bacterium spreads to the food we eat.

Whether a person gets salmonella by eating contaminated food or contact with an infected turtle, the majority of times, this serious infectious disease can be prevented.

And if you become one of the many people who suffer from the symptoms of a salmonella infection, you will regret that you did not take the proper preventative measures.

Massachusetts-based Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of the National Birth Defects Center, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

From the Center for Biological Diversity

Just months after federal scientists declared that the loggerhead sea turtle is spiraling toward extinction, the Obama administration tripled the number of sea turtles that can be caught by industrial fleets off the Hawaiian coast and increased the catch in the Gulf of Mexico by 700 percent.

The turtles are brutally and painfully snagged on hooks dragged behind massive boats. Worldwide, 200,000 loggerhead and 50,000 leatherback sea turtles are caught each year.

That's why we're including them in our campaign to protect 1,000 species. Sea turtles can't survive this level of entanglement and killing -- especially not to prop up industrial fishing fleets that are also killing hundred of thousands of whales, sharks, sea otters, and sea birds in the same vicious way each year.

Please contribute to the Center for Biological Diversity's Endangered Species Action Fund today to stop the sea turtle killing.

We just filed simultaneous suits in Hawaii and Florida to strike down the federal killing plans. With your help we can see the cases through and reform these out-of-date fishing practices before loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles go extinct.

And right now, a generous donor will match all gifts given by December 31st, so your donation will count twice as much if you donate today.

Loggerheads and leatherbacks are just two of 1,000 plants and animals the Endangered Species Action Fund will allow us to save in 2010. This month we've already launched actions to save polar bears, plains buffalo, golden trout, and salmon. With your help we'll soon take action on behalf of creatures in every state including wolverines, tree frogs, gray wolves, spotted frogs, and Florida panthers.

Saving 1,000 plants and animals is the biggest campaign we've ever mounted -- the biggest campaign in the history of the Endangered Species Act. But with your help, we can save them all.

Please donate generously today. We need to stop the brutal killing of sea turtles as soon as possible.And your gift will be matched 1-to-1 by a generous donor if given by Dec. 31st.

Thanks again for your support,

KierĂ¡n Suckling
Executive Director
Center for Biological Diversity

P.S. Check out the latest article by the Honolulu Advertiser on our sea turtle suit:

Suit challenges sea turtle rule change
HONOLULU ADVERTISER // December 17, 2009

Changes to longline fishery rules endanger the existence of loggerhead turtles, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday against the National Marine Fisheries Service

It claims that the Fisheries Service has relaxed rules governing the longline swordfish industry, allowing the fleet to catch nearly three times more loggerhead turtles than previously permitted.

Jim Milbury, spokesman for the Fisheries Service, said yesterday the agency had not seen the complaint and could not comment on it.

Andrea Treece, an attorney for the Center for Biological, said yesterday, "The Fisheries Service has admitted that loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific face a significant risk of extinction unless we reduce the number of turtles killed by commercial fisheries."

The new rule means that the agency "is proposing measures that would actually increase the number of turtles killed," Treece said.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Turtle hospital needs $200K amid strandings

BUZZARDS BAY — Work has slowed to a turtle's pace on a new hospital at the National Marine Life Center.

Just as the cold-stunning season for sea turtles has reached a feverish pitch, with a dozen more Kemp's ridleys sent to Boston in the past two days from Cape beaches on top of the record 24 earlier this week, work has come to a halt at the center, executive director Kathy Zagzebski said.

Financial slowdown

The National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay is trying to raise $200,000 by Jan. 15 to finish its turtle ward.

  • Donations may be made at the National Marine Life Center Web site at or by calling 508-743-9888.
  • Donors will receive a membership to the National Marine Life Center.

The center, located on Main Street, is making a plea to donors to raise $200,000 to finish the turtle ward, Zagzebski said. The center has already spent $3.1 million to complete the outer shell of the hospital, but doesn't have the money to connect the plumbing and electricity to the massive tanks that would be used to rehabilitate as many as 30 stranded turtles.

Enough money had been raised to complete the project, Zagzebski said, until it cost more than expected to clean up contaminated soil left behind by petroleum-based byproducts from the property's previous owner.

"There was more contamination uncovered than we expected," she said.

The National Marine Life Center is crucial for rehabbing stranded turtles, said Robert Prescott, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. More than 60 turtles have already been rescued this season, he said.

"(National) Marine Life Center is critical to capacity," Prescott said. "These are our turtles, they're our responsibility."

But without the ability to send turtles there for rehab, New England Aquarium may have to send them out of state to facilities in Maine, Long Island, Baltimore or even as far away as Florida, he said.

"We're going to have so many turtles, we literally don't have a place to put them," Prescott said. "They would be a key partner in getting them back into the wild."

Zagzebski said the center hopes to raise the money by Jan. 15 so it can bring contractors back in to finish the work. That will take three to four weeks, she said, and the center could still be ready to take its share of turtles once they're out of critical care at the aquarium.

The center is still operating its administrative offices and its educational facility, she said. Already some donors have come forward, including some of the volunteers who work at the facility. A $5,000 donation was made in memory of Daniel DeBarros, a Wareham teen killed in a car crash, and an anonymous donor chipped in $5,000.

Meanwhile, the center can only helplessly watch as the cold-stun season unfolds.

"It's killing me, Zagzebski said. "We are so close to opening the sea turtle ward. My friends are on the beaches rescuing them and my friends in Boston are taking good care of them. I really am trying to get the tanks ready so we can do our part."


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rescue mission aids cold-stunned turtles

Monday, December 7, 2009

Record number of turtles strand on beaches

WELLFLEET --120709-- Mass. Audubon's Michelle Stantinal takes the measurements of this green turtle that was found cold stunned on a local beach. A record number of cold stunned turtles have been rescued off the beaches over the past couple of days.

WELLFLEET - As a cold set in overnight, six more endangered sea turtles were rescued off Cape Cod Bay beaches early today bringing the total from Sunday to 25 - one of the largest, single-day totals ever, according to Massachusetts Audubon Society Wellfleet sanctuary director Robert Prescott.

Many of the 19 turtles will be transported to Boston this morning to join around 90 already being rehabilitated at the New England Aquarium.

These turtles, which include the endangered Kemps Ridley and green sea turtles, should already be headed back to warmer southern waters on their annual migration route, but they sometimes get caught by a change in the water and air temperature as the fall heads into winter.

Their metabolisms shut down and winds push them up onto beaches where wind chill and dehydration can prove fatal.

Audubon staff and volunteers patrol beaches regularly when winds blow onshore and water temperatures drop below 50 degrees.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Middle school students find carcass of endangered sea turtle on Quincy beach

The Patriot Ledger

Quincy- When Meghan Caggiano and Emily Van Tassel walk the sea wall at Perry Beach, they usually look down at the water and see no wildlife.

That changed Nov. 18.

The two Broad Meadows Middle School seventh-graders at found the carcass of a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the world’s most endangered sea turtle.

Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle facts
  • The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle was placed on the endangered species list in 1970. It is now the most endangered sea turtle in the world. Over the centuries, people have harvested the eggs and killed the turtles for their meat and leather-like skin. More recent threats include suffocation in shrimpers’ large nets and ingesting floating trash that the turtles mistake for food. There are 20,000 adult Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles left.
  • Average size: 27-32 inches (smallest sea turtle in the world).
  • Average weight: 75-100 pounds.
  • Diet: Crabs, shrimp, snails, clams, jellyfish, sea stars and fish.
  • Description: Dark gray to gray-green carapace (upper shell), cream to tan plasteron (lower shell), streamlined shells, and appendages shaped like flippers. The turtle’s dark, spotted head and flippers contrast sharply with its pale body.
  • Habitat: They prefer open ocean and Gulf waters; the females only come ashore to lay eggs in sand.
Sources: New England Aquarium; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; “Research and Management Techniques for the Conservation of Sea Turtles”

Full of excitement, they immediately called their science teacher, Debbie Baird, at school to describe their discovery and ask if they could bring it to class.

Another Kemp’s Ridley had been found in dead in Hull on Nov. 1.

“This is very unusual,” said New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse. “In all my time, I have never seen a Kemp’s Ridley turtle washed up on the South Shore.”

While the turtle is uncommon on the South Shore, it is a familiar sight on Cape Cod.

LaCasse said 28 cold-stunned Kemp’s Ridleys have been found from Dennis to Truro in the last week, 20 of them this weekend after the rainstorm.

The Kemp’s Ridleys, which hatch off the coast of Mexico, are the smallest and most endangered sea turtles in the world.

Rescuing a turtle
  • Move the turtle above the high-tide line.
  • Cover the turtle with seaweed and limit exposure to the wind.
  • Call animal rescue personnel or contact the New England Aquarium and leave an exact location as well as a description of landmarks. A rescue crew will come as soon as possible.
Source: New England Aquarium

Baby Kemp’s Ridley turtles, weighing 2 to 8 pounds, migrate as far as New England from Mexico, the Caribbean and the Carolinas to feed on crabs. In late August they swim back south to return to warmer waters.

When younger turtles encounter a strong current, they can have trouble swimming through it. As a result, they can wind up stuck in cold water and dying of hypothermia.

Last weekend, Massachusetts Audubon Society volunteers and personnel walked beaches from Eastham to Dennis and found five cold-stunned Kemp’s Ridleys and one green sea turtle.

The turtles were taken to the aquarium. Once healthy, they will be released into the wild.

Aquarium officials say the strandings are a natural occurrence as water temperatures drop.

The strandings usually start in early November. They have been delayed this year by the unusually warm temperatures.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Endangered turtles wash ashore on Cape

SOUTH WELLFLEET — Beach patrols Saturday night turned up another half-dozen turtles, washed up on the sand, immobilized by the cold water and wind.

With the wind still blowing onshore at 30 mph and water temperature in Cape Cod Bay finally dipping below 50 degrees, Massachusetts Audubon Society volunteers and staff walked bay beaches from Eastham to Dennis and found five "cold-stunned" Kemp's ridley turtles and one green sea turtle.

Turtles become "cold-stunned" when the water temperatures drop, causing their body metabolism to slow to the point where they can no longer swim. They then come to the surface so that they can breathe and float to shore. While most of the sea turtles that visit the Cape in warmer months have already headed south, some stragglers inevitably stay behind, continuing to feed while waters remain warm.

Kemp's ridleys are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. They can grow to where the shell measures two feet in length and they weigh 75 to 100 pounds. The green sea turtle is also listed as an endangered species and can attain four feet in shell length and weigh nearly 900 pounds.

Including the reptiles found Saturday night, a total of 29 turtles have been discovered on beaches from Sandwich to Provincetown since October.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Rescuers Racing To Save Stranded Sea Turtles

Endangered Kemp's Ridley Turtles Blown Ashore Saturday

BOSTON -- Colder weather and gusty winds pushed a surge of sea turtles onto Cape Cod beaches this weekend, sending rescuers scrambling to find the stranded reptiles before temperatures dip dangerously low overnight.

Dozens of endangered sea turtles usually begin turning up on the Massachusetts coast at the beginning of November, stunned by cold water in the Atlantic Ocean, but warmer-than-average temperatures this year kept the turtles at bay for a few extra weeks, New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said. LaCasse said the colder weather and blustery northwest winds this weekend caused the turtles to begin washing ashore along beaches from Dennis to Truro.

Since the start of the Thanksgiving holiday, 10 turtles have been rescued on the Cape by volunteers from the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay, including five turtles that were carried ashore by the high tide on Saturday morning. Exposed on the beach, the turtles are in danger not only of hypothermia and pneumonia, but also shell fractures, infections and attacks from roving raccoons, sea gulls and dogs. In all, 13 turtles have been rescued this year, but LaCasse expects several more to turn up in the coming days.

The rescued turtles face a long road to recovery, with rehabilitation periods ranging from months to more than a year. Once the turtles are healthy again, they will be released back into the wild.

Over the past 15 years, the New England Aquarium has successfully treated and released more than 500 young Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. Kemp’s Ridley turtles are the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world, according to LaCasse.

Annual search for Kemp's ridley turtles

On this day in 2001, about a hundred naturalists and volunteers combed the beaches of Cape Cod Bay. They are looking for summer visitors who have overstayed their welcome -- dozens of stranded sea turtles.

The turtles, called Kemp's ridleys, are the world's rarest and most endangered sea turtles. Weighing 5 to 10 pounds, usually 2 to 3 years old and about the size of a big green dinner plate, they spend summers feeding on blue mussels and crabs in the warm bay. But in fall, when they should be swimming south, many fail to get out of the bay.

Robert Prescott, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Wildlife Sanctuary, explained: ''When the fall weather turns cold and the water temperature dips below 50 degrees for a sustained period of time, they become so sluggish they can't leave the bay for warmer water. A strong northerly wind pushes them ashore.''

At that point, the wildlife sanctuary mobilizes its annual rescue effort. In 1999, the busiest year for strandings, the volunteers found 220 Kemp's ridleys, a big part of the worldwide population. So far this year, they have found 29. (Scientists do not know the total number but have counted 4,000 nests on beaches at Rancho Nuevo, on the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that there are at least 4,000 females.)

Because sea turtles can die from the cold, naturalists say, the sooner they find the turtles, the better the chance of their survival. Once recovered, they ride -- often in the passenger seat of a naturalist's pickup truck -- to the sanctuary in Wellfleet. A saline solution is applied to their eyes; protective jelly is rubbed on the carapace to retain body heat; some are given fluid intravenously.

Within 12 hours, they are taken to the New England Aquarium in Boston. After an average stay of four months, they complete their recovery at centers like Sea World in Florida, and are usually released in Florida or North Carolina. After that, Mr. Prescott said, the temptations of Cape Cod Bay are no longer a problem for the Kemp's ridleys: they come here only once in their lives. At age 15 to 20, the females return to Mexico to lay their eggs. (NY Times, Nov. 27, 2001)


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Help Prevent the Deaths of Thousands of Sea Turtles

Trawl fisheries indiscriminately catch everything in their path, including sea turtles! Untargeted or discarded catch from commercial fisheries, also known as bycatch, is an enormous problem throughout the world.

Take action >>

The National Marine Fisheries Service recognized this problem in 2007 and issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Although this was a first step to get in the water requirements to protect turtles from trawl nets, more than two years later a satisfactory rule has yet to be proposed!

Please ask Dr. Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to protect sea turtles in all trawl fisheries! >>

Sea turtles have been swimming in the world's oceans for more than 100 million years. While they have been able to survive many challenges over the years, sea turtles are not equipped to withstand the threat humans pose.

Thank you for taking action today!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hypothermic turtle rescued on Cape Cod

A large sea turtle is recovering in the water tank at New England Aquarium this morning, after being rescued from a salt marsh in Cape Cod where it was stranded and in danger of dying of hypothermia.

New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said the 175-pound adult female loggerhead sea turtle was discovered inside the Drummer Cove Pond salt marsh in Wellfleet by a Rhode Island man Sunday evening. The man contacted officials at the Massachusetts Audubon sanctuary, which decided to wait and see if the turtle would move itself into the waters. The turtle stayed put.

New England Aquarium biologists, contacted by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, traveled to the marsh Monday morning to examine the turtle, which they have named Acadia. The turtle had a body temperature of 54.8 degrees and was deemed hypothermic.

Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, LaCasse explained, and their internal body temperature changes based on the temperature around them. The temperature of Cape Cod Bay was near 60 degrees.

"Water temperatures do not change as quickly as air temperatures," LaCasse said. "We think she was left behind by the tide and became hypothermic."

The turtle was taken to the aquarium in Boston for examinations on Monday, LaCasse said. Bloodwork was abnormal, and she was found to be anemic with low blood sugar levels. Acadia is "alert, but lethargic," LaCasse said, and is currently swimming in the large tank at the aquarium with other turtles.

"With a turtle that size, it should be more difficult for us to handle," LaCasse said, referring to her lethargic manner. "There's some other abnormalities, and we're looking to see how to treat her."

Although it is common in November for turtles to be stranded around Cape Cod, Acadia is a different story. She was found in mid-October and she is an older, larger turtle, compared with the younger turtles that are usually found that weigh four to 10 pounds.

"Most turtles we rescue in November are Kemp's Ridley turtles, who are hypothermic and then become stranded," LaCasse added. "Acadia was out of the water due to the low tide and then became hypothermic."

In September, turtles that stay around the Cape during the summer to feast on crabs begin their southward migration to warmer waters. Some stay behind too long. Twenty-five to 150 hypothermic turtles are found around the Cape each fall.

Acadia is scheduled for more examinations over the next few days. If she is fine to go in the next few days, LaCasse said, she will be taken to the mid-Atlantic states and released there, where temperatures are similar, but she'll have a shorter trip south.

"If Acadia's recovery takes weeks or months, she'll be taken to Georgia or Florida and be released there, where water temperatures would be in the 70s," LaCasse said.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Middleboro 4-H Club leads beach clean up in Plymouth

PLYMOUTH — On Saturday, September 26, the Nature's Navigators 4-H Science club of Middleboro led 4-H members and volunteers in cleaning the beach at Plymouth Harbor. The event was organized by the Nature's Navigators 4-H volunteer leader, Charles Chace of Middleboro. The harbor beach was cleaned, including the jetty and Nelson Beach. In total, 236 pounds of trash were removed from the beach to be properly disposed of.

"I've often stressed the importance of removing plastic bags, which look like jellyfish to hungry sea turtles," said Mr. Chace. "Once swallowed, the bags clog the turtle's stomach, causing them to starve. This year we gathered 315 plastic bags, surely saving a few turtles." The 4-H volunteers also gathered 731 cigarette butts, and hundreds of plastic eating utensils, empty cans and bottles, and food wrappers.

"We are very proud of the community service work of all of our 4-H'ers," said Plymouth County Extension 4-H Educator, Sam Fox. "This community service project shows the good that can be done when a group of concerned youth come together to help their community and their environment."

The Nature's Navigators have a history of completing projects that combine their interest in environmental science with community service. In addition to the Plymouth Harbor Beach cleanup, which the Nature's Navigators have participated in for seven years, they also have identified and documented vernal pools for protection by the state, and have constructed wood duck nesting boxes for donation to Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife.

For more information on future Plymouth County 4-H community service activities, or how you can become involved in Plymouth County 4-H as a member or volunteer contact the Plymouth County Extension office at 781-293-3541, or e-mail

Plymouth County Extension 4-H Youth and Family Development is an outreach education program of Plymouth County government in cooperation with UMass Extension and the United States Department of Agriculture. Plymouth County/UMass Extension offers equal opportunities in programs and employment.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Crop of turtles hatch at Wareham Community Gardens

WAREHAM — Plants are apparently not the only thing growing in Wareham Community Gardens. An empty plot made the perfect hatching ground for three baby turtles. Two Eastern box turtles and one painted turtle made their appearance on Tuesday.

"The painted turtle was a surprise," said turtle researcher and rescuer Don Lewis, also known as "the Turtle Guy."

Lewis was called to the gardens in June after Wareham resident Bob Brady told Lewis an Eastern box turtle nest had been found in someone's garden plot. Lewis, his wife and research partner Sue Wieber Nourse and Brady moved the nest to an empty plot and covered it with a predator excluder cage to keep it safe.

When Lewis checked on the nest Tuesday, he found a second nest there — and the painted turtle hatchling inside. Apparently, a mother turtle had made her nest there before the rescuers had moved the Eastern box nest to the spot.

"Obviously, this 'Turtle Guy' has begun to think like a turtle," Lewis said.

The Eastern box turtle is a species of special concern in Massachusetts, which is the lowest of three tiers of protected species in the state. A land turtle, it lives in woodlands and back yards. They grow to be 6 inches long and have a dome-shaped, orange and yellow shell.

Painted turtles are aquatic, and fresh water turtles are more prolific than Eastern box turtles. The painted turtles will grow to 8 or 9 inches long and have shallower shells.

Under better conditions, many more turtle babies would have hatched from the nests. But the weather and small predators, such as insects, meant that only a few survived.

"It's been a cool and chilly spring and summer, which has not been good for turtle productivity," Lewis said. "Normally, there would be three to five box turtles in a nest and normally about five to eight painted turtles."

The hatchlings were slightly dehydrated, Lewis said, so he bathed them in some fresh water on Tuesday "to give them a head start." In a day or two, they will be released back at their natal site.

"The one sure thing that I have discovered in my afterlife — retirement — is that turtles build community and tiny baby turtles bind people together in magical ways," Lewis said. "If a community garden is good, then a community turtle garden is even better."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Conserving Blanding’s Turtles at Great Meadows

Saturday, Aug. 15


Thoreau School, 93 Prairie St.,
Concord, Massachusetts

Saturday, Aug. 15, 1 p.m.

Assabet River presentation by Great Meadows Wildlife Refuge with Blandings Turtles.


RSVP to U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, at or call 978-459-0101.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Snapper sightings in Westborough

Garry KesslerThis young snapping turtle, about a foot long, tried to cross local railroad tracks to get from one wet area to another. It had been wedged up against a rail, which was an obstacle it couldn’t cross. Snappers are the largest freshwater turtles in Massachusetts, weighing 8-35 pounds and with shells 8-20 inches long. They live 30-40 years.

WESTBOROUGH - With its many swamps, ponds and rivers, Westborough offers us the exciting possibility of meeting a native snapping turtle.

Why exciting? After all, turtles are slow and lumbering on land.

For that very reason, some excitement is likely if you or your pets encounter a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) on land. The snapper is likely to feel cornered, simply because it’s on land.

It will probably turn to face you, and it may hiss, lunge and snap its jaws, threatening to bite. It puts on a show of being ready to defend itself. The thing to do, of course, is to realize that you’ve cornered a wild animal and back off.

Snappers have a fearsome reputation, in contrast to our peaceable image of most other turtles. Turtles are famous for protecting themselves by withdrawing – quite literally. For example, our eastern painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) defend their head and legs by pulling them inside their shell, where they’re safe. (Painted turtles are the ones we usually see sunning themselves on logs in ponds.)

Snapping turtles, on the other hand, can’t pull their head and limbs all the way in. Their small-sized lower shell isn’t big enough. They have no choice but to defend themselves on land by biting, just as many other animals do.

In water, snappers are not fearsome. In their element, they are swift and maneuverable. They simply swim away if you unsuspectingly approach or even step on them. Like most other wild animals, they prefer to retreat to avoid trouble. Contrary to what some people think, they don’t hunt the fingers and toes of swimmers.

The other reason for excitement when you find a snapper (or any turtle) on land – especially on a roadway – is concern for its safety in traffic. That dark rock in the road may be a turtle! A big rock could be a snapper. Most drivers have the good sense to avoid running over something that looks like a rock, since rocks aren’t good for vehicles, but unfortunately some turtles become road kill.

Sometimes, drivers may see a “Turtle Crossing” sign, such as on Arch Street near Mill Pond. But these signs are few and far between, and humans have created other dangerous barriers to turtle crossings, such as the local railroad tracks that posed a hazard for the young snapper in this week’s photo.

What are snappers (and other turtles) doing on land anyway? Why does a turtle that lives in water cross a road or trail? One big reason is to get from one wet area to another. For example, snapping turtles may visit woodland vernal pools in the spring to hunt frogs and salamanders that collect there to breed. Human development has created roads and railroads that slice up wetlands and open space into smaller sections, so many animals end up crossing roads in their normal travels. (We see “Deer Crossing” signs more often than “Turtle Crossing” signs.)

Another big reason for snappers (and other turtles) to move over land is to find a suitable nesting area for their eggs. Typically in June, females haul themselves out of the water to search for a sandy place to lay their eggs.

We don’t think of Westborough as sandy, but the retreating glaciers left scattered sand and gravel deposits here and all over the eastern third of Massachusetts some 14,000 years ago. Human sand and gravel operations benefit from them, and turtles find them and dig nest holes with their back legs.

Some holes are false nests, but the female turtle finally chooses one, deposits her eggs, and covers them. Snapper eggs are about the size of ping-pong balls. The female leaves them to be incubated by the warmth of the sun on the sand.

The sun’s warmth also determines the sex of the turtles developing inside the eggs. During a certain early stage, eggs at low and high temperatures (55 degrees F and 77 degrees F) produce females. Eggs in the middle range (say, 73 degrees F) become males. Temperature varies within a nest because some eggs lie deeper than others, so one nest may produce both males and females. What will this year’s cool, wet summer produce?

Turtle eggs may be hidden under the sand, but they’re far from safe. If you walk near a sandy area along a shore or bank, look for what’s left on the ground after a predator raid: slightly rolled, leathery shards of turtle eggs. Some turtle nesting areas can be so covered with the remains of eggs that it seems surprising that any survive.

Skunks are the usual raiders, but raccoons, foxes and coyotes also dig up and eat turtle eggs, usually soon after they’re laid. The false nests that turtles dig may serve to confuse predators.
August and September are the months for baby turtles. Snappers are the size of a quarter when they hatch, dig themselves out of the sand, and head for water. On land and in the shallows, many of them make a meal for snakes, birds, big fish and even other turtles.

Adult snapping turtles are large and well protected from predators by their shell, but it’s legal to hunt them in Massachusetts. Snappers were the traditional meat in turtle soup, a favorite among New England settlers and Native Americans.

How do snappers get through the winter? The fact that they are cold-blooded may be key to their winter survival. Sometime in November, when our ponds begin to ice over, snappers bury themselves in mud at the bottom of a pond. They move little or not at all, and their metabolism – the chemical reactions in their bodies – slows way down. Remarkably, they don’t even breathe, but their skin may absorb some oxygen from the cold water. In April’s warmth, they become active again.

Snapping turtles are survivors. So are turtles in general, dating back 200 million years in the history of life, to the age of the dinosaurs. Turtles survived the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs (and 60 percent of the species on Earth) 65 million years ago.

Let’s respect and appreciate our local snappers!

Visit the Westborough Community Land Trust (WCLT) web site to read past Nature Notes columns, check our calendar of events, and download our new trail maps:

"Turtles Gone Wild: Turtles of the South Coast and Cape Cod"

"Turtles Gone Wild: Turtles of the South Coast and Cape Cod,”

6:30 p.m. Tuesday, John Wesley United Methodist Church
Jones Road and Gifford Street, Falmouth.

Program by Don Lewis, aka “The Turtle Guy” and Sue Wieber Nourse.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Unlocking The Mysteries Of Leatherback Turtles

by Alan Pollock

HARWICH — The Cape has no shortage of curious summer visitors, but one is downright mysterious. It’s the leatherback turtle, and it’s the subject of a research project that bases some of its operations in Harwich Port.

Kara Dodge is a doctoral candidate working in the Large Pelagics Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. She and other researchers regularly hop aboard the fishing boat Sea Holly, owned by Mark Leach, to find, capture, examine and radio-tag the reclusive, endangered sea turtles. In a presentation to a small group of people at town hall last week, Dodge said many questions persist about the species.

Harwich Port fisherman Mark Leach, pictured with Henry, the first tagged leatherback of 2008. KARA DODGE PHOTO

Though they grow up to six feet in length, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, leatherbacks have a seemingly meager diet, compared to the sea grass and crabs eaten by other turtles. “They eat jellyfish, only jellyfish,” Dodge said. And since jellyfish are mostly water, leatherbacks need to eat them in huge amounts. Because they have the ability to raise their internal body temperature, unlike most cold-blooded animals, leatherbacks apparently never get cold-stunned like other sea turtles found in these waters.

Leatherbacks spend most of their time feeding in waters relatively close to the surface, but sometimes they dive---and they do it with gusto. One leatherback was recorded diving to 1,270 meters, deeper than every other air-breathing animal except sperm whales. “And nobody knows why they do it,” Dodge said.

Research on leatherbacks began in the 1960s. Before that, when a leatherback was caught off the coast of Cape Cod, it was assumed that the animal had simply strayed from the tropics. Dodge showed an old photo of people posing next to a giant leatherback strung up between two trees as a curiosity. “It was sort of like a sideshow,” she said. Research advanced in the 1980s, when Mass. Audubon researcher Robert Prescott led several studies. Primitive tracking devices were developed, and ultimately confirmed leatherbacks’ impressive annual migration. Females lay their eggs on the tropical beaches of Florida, the Caribbean, and the northern shores of South America, the same beaches where they hatched, and travel north in the summer to the waters off New England and Canada to feed.

Because a leatherback’s carapace isn’t a hard shell, it’s not easy to attach a radio transmitter. At first, the devices were strapped on like backpacks; today’s transmitters are much smaller and more sophisticated, and are attached with a biodegradable tether tied to a hole in one of the ridges of the carapace. After a year of collecting data, the transmitter comes loose and is lost, allowing the leatherback to swim unimpeded. But attaching the radio tag requires first finding and catching the animal.

To do the job, Dodge and her team recruited two fishermen with appropriate boats, equipped with low transoms for hauling the leatherbacks aboard. The boats had to be outfitted with pulpits and towers like a tuna boat, so they can sneak up on unsuspecting leatherbacks. One boat is the Sea Holly, and another is from Woods Hole.

Using cues radioed in by airborne spotters, the crew travels to an area where leathernecks are known to be feeding, and then tries to spot one. It’s no simple task, Dodge said.

“It’s even hard to find whales out there,” she said. Leatherbacks are much smaller, and they’re at the surface only briefly to breathe. “That was our first hurdle,” she said. Eventually they bring the boat alongside a leatherback, and use a custom-designed purse net positioned with a rig that looks like the frame of a giant butterfly net. The turtle is captured and positioned on a special wooden plank which is then hauled aboard the boat. Once on deck, the leatherback gets a physical workup by a New England Aquarium biologist, and then receives a microchip similar to the kind used to identify cats and dogs. It’s not always easy, since the turtle has its own plan.

“You can’t actually stop them from walking around the boat,” Dodge said, so the crew uses cushions and life jackets to keep the animal from harming itself. Then, the radio tag is installed. Each unit costs between $3,500 and $5,000, and provides up to 12 locations each day, transmitting the data to polar-orbiting satellites. The transmitter also collects data on the water temperature and depth of dives. So far, 20 leatherbacks have been tagged, 18 of them off Cape Cod.

Researchers like Dodge want to know why some nesting areas are more productive than others, and ultimately, whether certain “high use areas” might require more careful monitoring. One such area, Cape Cod Bay, appears to pose a navigational challenge for leatherbacks, based on their satellite tracking data.

“We can’t prove this, but it almost looks like they don’t know how to get out of Cape Cod Bay,” Dodge said. That’s a problem, particularly if they get tangled in fishing lines. One leatherback was freed from fishing gear in the bay, only to be found later tangled up again. Another animal died after getting hopelessly tangled in a 10-pot string of lobster traps. With better research, it might be possible to provide mariners with better real-time advisories on leatherback positions, or to suggest fishing gear reductions in certain areas. For the time being, people are encouraged to report sightings of sea turtles in Massachusetts waters by calling 1-888-SEA-TURT. Mariners finding an entangled sea turtle should contact the Coast Guard on marine Channel 16.

Though new data is emerging all the time, the research leaves a number of questions unanswered. Because leatherbacks are most easily observed were when they are laying eggs, there is a much broader knowledge base about females than about males. And very little is known about juvenile leatherbacks, which are very rarely seen. “It’s really hard to protect them when we don’t know where they are,” Dodge said.

Last month, the researchers tagged their first turtle of the season in Nantucket Sound. The crew named the turtle Ethan, after the grandson of Ernie Eldredge of Chatham, another one of the project’s fishermen collaborators. Ethan’s position is posted daily at

Funding for the research comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, the New England Aquarium and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. The work is expensive, and members of the public are encouraged to adopt Ethan by making a donation of between $25 and $100.