Monday, May 31, 2010

My View: Slow-moving turtles increasingly at risk in our fast-paced world

My View
by Don Lyman

Between now and the end of June, female turtles will be leaving their watery hangouts and trekking overland in search of a spot to lay their eggs.

Massachusetts has 10 species of native turtles — painted, snapping, musk, red-bellied, bog, spotted, Blanding's, wood, box, and diamondback terrapins (along with one exotic species, the red-eared slider). Except for the box turtle, which is a terrestrial or land turtle, and the diamondback terrapin, which lives in salt marshes, all of our turtles live in freshwater environments.

From diminutive, 4-inch-long musk turtles to 60-pound snapping turtles, if you live or work near a pond, stream, swamp or other wetland, you're likely to see one of these reptiles crossing a road or parking lot, or digging a nest hole in an open field or vacant lot, or even in your yard.

Nesting habits

Turtle nests consist of a hole in the ground, which female turtles dig with their hind feet. They tend to choose patches of bare soil that is easy to dig in, located in open areas like fields or yards, where the nests will get plenty of sunlight to incubate the eggs.

The conservation officer for a town north of Boston told me recently that Blanding's turtles, which are a threatened species in Massachusetts, like to nest in the sandy soil in the town's soccer field.

During nesting season the part of the soccer field where the turtles dig their nests has to be cordoned off until the baby turtles hatch in late August and early September.

Smaller turtles, like bog or musk turtles, may lay only four or five eggs. Bigger turtles, like Blanding's or snapping turtles, may lay a dozen or more.

After she's finished laying her eggs, the female turtle fills in the nest hole and covers the eggs by pushing the loose soil she's excavated back into the hole with her hind feet. The eggs usually hatch anywhere from two to three months after being laid.

Interestingly, the sex of the hatchlings is determined by temperature, with warmer soil temperatures typically producing female offspring, and cooler soil temperatures producing male offspring, although this can vary depending on the species.

Threats to turtle eggs include mammals like raccoons, skunks, opossums, and rats, which will dig up the nests and eat the eggs, according to Kerry Muldoon, Conservation Commission biologist for the city of New Bedford.

Muldoon says even plants can pose a threat to turtle eggs. She says the roots of beach grass and salt-marsh cordgrass have been known to penetrate and destroy the eggs of diamondback terrapins, which she studied while in graduate school.

Hatchling turtles likewise fall prey to a variety of animals including mammals, birds, and even ants.

Caution: Turtles crossing

Many adult turtles are struck by cars as they cross roads in search of nest sites, or when they attempt to nest in open areas along the edges of roads. Turtles also sometimes nest in the open, sandy soil next to railroad tracks where they may be struck by trains, or become trapped between rails.

Biologist Tim Beaulieu says he found about a dozen or more turtles' nests along a 100-foot section of railroad track behind a small pond while conducting a survey of reptiles and amphibians in a suburban area west of Boston a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, Beaulieu said, all the nests had been destroyed by predators. Additionally, Beaulieu said he found the remains of several painted and snapping turtles trapped between the rails.

"Adult turtles live a long time," according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife website. "For example, Box Turtles are known to live longer than 100 years. However, because turtle eggs and juvenile turtles have so many predators and must face many other survival difficulties, only a tiny percentage of turtles ever reach adulthood. Therefore, the survival of adult turtles which have been fortunate enough to surmount these obstacles is very important.

"For this reason a turtle must live for many years and reproduce many times in order to replace themselves in their population. Losing any adult turtles, and particularly adult females, is a serious problem that can tragically lead to the eventual local extinction of a population."

The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, part of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, is working with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation on a new program called the Turtle Roadkill Monitoring Project, to locate turtle roadkill hotspots. The goal of the project is to identify and monitor problem road crossing sites for turtles.

These agencies are asking the public's help with this project, which basically entails identifying a potential turtle roadkill hotspot in your town and confirming it with project coordinators; then conducting road surveys at these sites during designated time periods in May and June.

How you can help

In addition to roadkill hotspots, Mass. Fisheries and Wildlife and the Turtle Conservation Project are asking the public to submit information on locations where multiple turtles nest, as well as to report sightings of individual turtles.

If you should find a female turtle nesting in your yard, Mass. Fisheries and Wildlife says the best thing to do is to keep people and animals away from the area until she's done nesting, which can take several hours.

Also, remember that turtles can deliver a painful bite, and in the case of large snapping turtles, can even inflict serious wounds.

Half a dozen of Massachusetts' native turtle species are state listed as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern. Other than snapping, painted, and musk turtles, it is illegal to capture and keep wild turtles as pets in Massachusetts.

It's also important never to release store-bought turtles into the wild, as they may transmit diseases to wild turtle populations.

Turtles' role in our ecosystem

Turtles have been around since before the time of the dinosaurs and they play an important role in the environment as predators, herbivores, and prey.

"Aquatic turtles often represent a very high proportion of animal biomass in wetlands they occupy, therefore making them very important in wetland food webs," according to Dr. Hal Avery, biology professor and turtle researcher at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "Turtles occupy many trophic levels (an organism's feeding position in a food web) from primary consumers (herbivores) to top carnivores."

Turtles also play an important role in limiting herbivore populations, according to Avery, which helps maintain the stability of entire ecosystems and ecological communities.

"For example," says Avery, "without diamondback terrapins, Spartina (the dominant salt-marsh plant) salt marshes would be overgrazed and lost to mollusc grazers."

Professor Avery and his colleague, Professor Jim Spotila, and other researchers from Drexel University, in conjunction with volunteers, coordinated through the nonprofit organization Earthwatch, have been conducting a long-term research project at Barnegat Bay, N.J., for several years now, studying the ecology of diamondback terrapins, and the effects of human impacts on these turtles. The researchers are discovering that commercial fishing, shoreline development, pollution, the hazards of roads and motor vehicles, and even boat noise, all take their toll on turtles.

"Because they occupy some of the most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems in the world", says Avery, "and because they utilize aquatic and terrestrial habitats within these ecosystems, aquatic turtles are paramount indicators of ecosystem function, making them important model organisms to study in conservation biology."

Unfortunately many species of turtles are threatened due to habitat destruction, pollution, roads, and other hazards.

But research being carried out by scientists, as well as programs like those being conducted by Mass. Fisheries and Wildlife, and citizen involvement in turtle conservation efforts, can help ensure that turtles will continue to be around to play their important role in the environment, and for future generations to observe and enjoy as part of our natural heritage.

• • •

Don Lyman is an adjunct instructor of biology at Merrimack College in North Andover. A Wilmington resident, he is also a pharmacist who works part-time at Beverly Hospital. Readers can obtain more information on the Massachusetts Turtle Roadkill Monitoring Project at, and on the Turtle Conservation Project at

Source: The Salem News

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Protective Shell

Turtles rescued from the Cape remain safe at the aquarium while officials keep an eye on oil spill in Gulf, their eventual home
By Beth Daley, Globe Staff May 24, 2010

They were the unlucky ones: close to 200 critically endangered and frozen Kemp’s ridley turtles plucked from Cape Cod beaches by volunteers last winter. Most died, but more than two dozen have spent months recovering from pneumonia and other complications in marine intensive care units around the Northeast.

Now those Kemp’s ridley survivors just may be the most fortunate of their species. The unfolding Gulf of Mexico oil leak is on track to deeply pollute estuaries and coastal bays where Kemp’s ridleys live. Two turtles have been found covered with oil and are being treated now in Louisiana, and environmental officials expect more in the weeks to come.

Officials at the New England Aquarium had planned to release about a dozen of the dinner-plate-sized turtles in the Gulf last month, until the massive British Petroleum leak disrupted their plans. Then a contingency idea to release the animals off South Carolina was also put on hold after signs emerged that the oil may be rounding Florida and heading up the East Coast.

“I don’t want to release them into a questionable environment at this stage,’’ said Connie Merigo, director of the Aquarium’s Rescue and Rehab program. “It’s safer for them in a controlled environment. We are controlling their water temperature, nutrition, medical condition, everything. We’re going to keep them safe here for now.’’

While environmental officials are worried about all Gulf wildlife, they are especially concerned about Kemp’s ridley turtles. Breeding pairs number only in the thousands, and the animals with the dark-colored shells are considered one of the smallest, and the world’s most endangered, sea turtles. The turtles primarily nest on certain Mexican beaches, but there is also a small nesting site in Texas.

The turtles were once abundant, but consumption of turtle eggs as an aphrodisiac and entanglement in fishing gear caused their population to plummet. The outlawing of turtle egg harvests, protection against poachers, and the development of turtle-friendly fishing gear have helped the population start a rebound: More than 7,000 females nested last year.

By yesterday in the Gulf, 207 turtles, most dead, had been found in the oil spill area. Only three, including the two Kemp’s ridleys, were clearly harmed by the oil; they are alive and being treated, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman. Turtles frequently wash ashore this time of year, and it is not clear if the numbers officials are seeing are part of this annual occurrence or are somehow related to the spill.

Cape Cod has long had a connection to the tiny turtles. Every year, the Kemp’s ridleys come north to feed on crabs and other marine life off the Cape. For reasons no one completely understands, some do not start paddling south before the cold hits. Because the turtles are cold-blooded, the drop in water temperature robs them of the ability to move. Unable to paddle their flippers or even to feed, they are at the mercy of ocean currents and wash up on shore when a strong wind blows.

For years, volunteers on Cape Cod have walked the beaches on winter days looking for Kemp’s ridleys and other turtles. This past year, 187 ridleys were found, according to Bob Prescott of Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

Most were dead or died soon afterward, but 52 were sent to the New England Aquarium, which took most in and sent the rest to other rehab clinics.

Now, Merigo said she will probably hold the Aquarium turtles until Cape Cod waters warm up and release them this summer. That would be the best way to ensure they avoid any oil.

Today, 13 ridleys are ready to be released as well as three green sea turtles and Merigo expects more will be ready by August. Holding them until then is not expected to harm them, she said.

The Aquarium has long released turtles off New England. But this year’s planned release off Louisiana was designed to reinstitute an annual ritual interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. It remains to be seen what will become of the turtles in the Gulf.

Prescott asked: “Will the oil knock out the whole food web?’’ He said the true Gulf impact will be seen in future winters on Cape Cod. “We usually see 2- or 3-year-old turtles up here getting caught in the winters,’’ Prescott said. “Will it be this eerie no-ridley coastline?’’

Beth Daley can be reached at


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Turtle Crossing Surveying in Berkshire County

Turtle Watch Training

Join Jane Winn of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) on Saturday, May 15th from 10 to noon at Dan Casey Memorial Causeway in Pittsfield to learn to monitor a stretch of road for evidence of turtles crossing. We will look at the species of turtles found in our area, how to monitor, and how to document and report our findings. Jane will have maps of locations that need monitoring, or if you know of a location where you have seen turtles cross in the past, you may choose to monitor there.

Monitoring will be four times in 2010 - 1) once during the last week of May, 2) once during the second week of June, 3) once during the last week of June, and 4) once during the first two weeks of September. In September we will enter our data into the statewide database.

Also join them this Friday, May 7th - a group of will be meeting at 1pm at Lake Garfield Beach to figure out how to survey for turtles on Tyringham Road by Lake Garfield.

More information here:

And here: