Sunday, January 31, 2010

Patty the turtle continues slow recovery

Wicked Local photo/Ruth Thompson

By Ruth Thompson
Gatehouse News Service

It’s been almost a year since Patty was brought to the National Marine Life Center (NMLC) in a state best described as close to death. And she’s still going strong, despite some new challenges, thanks to the marine animal hospital being able to house and sustain her.

Patty is a diamondback terrapin turtle. Diamondback terrapins are on the Massachusetts endangered species list, which makes Patty’s recovy all that more imperative.

When she arrived last March at the NMLC, she had been immobilized by shock, blinded by burst blood vessels in her eyes and her rear legs were partially paralyzed.

Her ailments were the result of being cold stunned, which is caused by exposure to the cold winter weather.

Diamondback terrapins go into a state of hibernation over the winter, but if their burrows are disturbed, they are left vulnerable to the elements.

Turtles that are cold stunned often die.

It was fortunate that the NMLC was able to accommodate Patty. Veterinarians treated her with antibiotics, she received physical therapy to help her regain the use of her hind legs and there was plenty of food, rest and relaxation to build up her strength.

The goal of the NMLC is to allow the animals in their care to fully recuperate and then be released back into the wild.

That had been the intention with Patty, but she still remains at the NMLC.

“She doing really well,” NMLC President and Executive Director Kathy Zagzebski said. “Her attitude is great. She’s eating well, and her vision is fully restored.”

Unfortunately, Zagzebski said Patty has developed a very serious bone infection.

“She’s lost portions of her shell,” Zagzebski said, “but there’s new shell underneath.”

Zagzebski said the condition has been seen before in turtles that have been cold stunned.

Patty, however, is taking things in stride.

She is enjoying the luxury of her own tank at the clinic and is again being given antibiotics. She is scrubbed down daily to help remove the dead shell and prevent infection, and then an antibiotic-laced dressing is placed over her shell.

“Every single day we completely change the water in her tank and clean the rocks off so that there is nothing in her environment making her sick,” Zagzebski said.

Trained volunteers perform many of these tasks.

“She’s really engaging,” Zagzebski said. “She has a great personality, though she has her moods. Everyone enjoys her.”

Patty’s rear legs are getting stronger, and Zagzebski said her “mobility is much better, but she failed her swim test.”

And while Zagzebski would still like to see Patty one day sent back to her real home, there’s no rush for her to leave the NMLC.

“It will take some time for the bone to grow back,” Zagzebski said. “But she’ll be all right, she’s a fighter.”

In good company

Patty isn’t the only turtle in residence at the NMLC.

There are currently two species of juveniles being tended to, as well.

Around the corner and down the hall from Patty’s private sanctuary are a group of eight northern red-bellied cooters and a group of eight diamondback terrapins, like Patty but only younger and smaller.

The northern red-bellied cooters are kept in a large tank together, while the diamondback terrapins, most no bigger than a quarter, are kept segregated from each other because they’re more aggressive towards one another.

The red-bellies are part of a state program to help recover their population.

“The Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program runs a ‘headstart’ program,” Zagzebski said. “They collect 100 hatchlings a year and places them in partner organizations – wildlife centers, zoos, schools. Partner organizations care for the turtles over the winter following specific protocols. During this time, the turtles put on the equivalent of three years of growth, so that when they are released, they are significantly more likely to survive.”

Zagzebski said around Memorial Day weekend, the NMLC and the other partners will turn the turtles back over to the state, at which point they will be measured and examined before they are released.

The public is invited to the release.

The red-bellies are approximately 4 months old, and the diamondbacks are about 3 months.

Zagzebski said the diamondback terrapins don’t grow as quickly as the red-bellies.

“The reason we have (the diamondbacks) is because they did not hatch early enough to survive the winter,” Zagzebski said. “Their nest wasn’t hatching.”

They finally hatched at the home of Don “the turtle guy” Lewis before being brought to the NMLC.

They’ll be a bit stronger and healthier than their brothers and sisters who hatched in the wild. That’s because the turtles in the wild slept in the mud all winter, while the little guys at the NMLC were pampered and well fed.

The tiny turtles are tended to by volunteers who assist in everything from feeding them and recording changes in their size to cleaning up their tanks.

Lori and Tim Benson of Onset are charged with weighing and measuring the red-belles and then carefully photographing the turtles and logging in the information.

“We want to ensure the red bellies are growing at a rate that will allow them to be at least 85 millimeters upon release,” Zagzebski said. “We don’t want them to grow too quickly, however, because that can have negative health effects. By measuring and weighing the turtles weekly, we can chart their progress and compare to other years of our data, as well as to data of other partners, to ensure the animals are growing at an acceptable rate.”

Kathryn Biscoe of Buzzards Bay feeds the diamondback terrapins.

“Volunteering is fun,” she said. “I have some free time on my hands and come down here two days a week. I love all kinds of animals, anything from a worm to a rhinoceros.”

National Marine Life Center seeking financial support to complete project

Wicked Local photo/Ruth Thompson

By Ruth Thompson
Gatehouse News Service

There’s progress being made on the new National Marine Life Center (NMLC) marine animal hospital, and the sea turtle ward is nearly complete.

But work on the Buzzards Bay facility had to be halted due to lack of funding.

“There were some costs that were higher than expected,” NMLC President and Executive Director Kathy Zagzebski said. “Right now, we’re trying to raise about $91,000 for the turtle ward.”

She said the NMLC has already raised approximately $102,000 thanks to donations and fundraisers.

NMLC is a nonprofit marine animal hospital. Their goal is to rehabilitate stranded or injured sea turtles, seals, dolphins, porpoises and small whales. Once healthy and able to fend for themselves, the animals will be released back into the wild.

There is a crucial need for a marine animal hospital in this area.

According to Zagzebski, the 2009-2010 sea turtle-stranding season is the third busiest year on record. Close to 200 sea turtles have stranded on Cape Cod to date. Most are found suffering from cold stunning, a condition caused by exposure to frigid temperatures.

Without proper treatment, the turtles will die.

Zagzebski said nearly 99 percent of all stranded marine animals along Cape Cod and the shores of Southeastern Massachusetts will perish simply because there is no place to take them to be cared for and brought back to health.

“The New England Aquarium has a number of tanks for turtles, but nothing for the larger animals,” Zagzebski said. “It’s really important to have a facility for the animals here, where they strand.”

NMLC admitted its first patient, a loggerhead sea turtle named Eco, in 2004.

Eco had been suffering the effects of being cold stunned and had initially been treated at the New England Aquarium before being transferred to the NMLC.

After regular health checks and rehabilitation, Eco was returned in good health back to the wild.

The NMLC began to quickly outgrow the space in their existing building. The lack of adequate square footage, coupled with severe and irreversible structural conditions such as a collapsing roof, left no other alternative but to vacate the building, and so began an extensive campaign to raise funds for the new hospital and research building.

The hospital will be completed in phases, with the turtle ward being the first phase.

And while Zagzebski said the ward is “nearly 90 percent done,” there is still some major work ahead, including connecting the life support system and completing the plumbing, electricity and sprinkler system installation. A staircase leading up to the mezzanine level needs to be finished, and the main wall needs to be closed up to keep the building weather-tight and secure.

She praised the contractors working on the hospital for helping to keep the costs down.

“They’ve been fabulous,” she said. “Several are donors, as well, and have not only donated time and materials but have written out a check, as well.”

The new building will boast state-of-the-art equipment designed to provide the best possible care for patients.

The front north-facing wall will be comprised of a material called Extech, which is polycarbonate plastic.

“This translucent material allows natural light into the hospital, thus reducing stress on the animals and promoting healing. It will be like having one big window,” Zagzebski said.

The warmth and the light coming in through this “window” will be a benefit for the animals in the hospital.

Another important point about the hospital is that the option to quarantine animals in certain rooms or in certain pools is available because each pool will have its own filtration system.

Zagzebski said the hospital would be able to utilize the various tanks for more than one species.

For example, in addition to the turtles, seals could possibly be kept in tanks in the turtle ward.

She said the primary focus right now is on the turtle ward.

This ward will consist of six tanks total: two 12 feet in diameter and 5-feet-deep tanks, three 10 feet in diameter and 4-feet-deep tanks and one six feet in diameter and 4-feet-deep tank.

“Depending on the size of the turtle, we could feasibly take as many as 40 turtles in this space,” she said.

Three of the tanks in the turtle ward were partially donated. One tank was completely donated.

Design of the ward will allow for pipes and pumps to be concealed beneath the raised floor of the hospital, which would free up much-needed space.

Zagzebski said once the turtle ward is complete and open to animals, “we will shift our focus to the seal wards, then the dolphin pools.”

She said the larger pool could even hold a manatee, if the need arose.

“We’re building in a lot of flexibility with the pools when we can,” she said. “You never know what Mother Nature will bring.”

The largest tank (46 by 30 feet and 12-feet deep, almost 90,000 gallons) will be able to hold up to four dolphins, up to two porpoises or up to two pilot whales.

The second largest tank (30-feet round and 8-feet deep, almost 32,000 gallons) will be able to hold up to two dolphins or one porpoise.

“Just as an aside, although porpoises are smaller than dolphins, they are more solitary animals, thus they need more space,” she said.

Eventually, the clinic, which is now housed in the adjacent building, will be moving over to the larger hospital facility.

The second floor mezzanine will allow for veterinarians’ offices and lab space for the vets and the scientists. There will also be a conference room for meetings and educational programs.

“It’s exciting to see how far we’ve come,” she said. “Once we get the rest of the funding, it should only take about six weeks for the turtle ward to be able to start accepting patients. We’re so close.”

Home, sweet home: Box turtles thrive on Cape

Wicked Local photo by Barry Donahue

By Rich Eldred
The Cape Codder

In mid-winter nothing brings on thoughts of summer on Cape Cod like a discussion on box turtles.

Well, perhaps a few things do, but the box turtle (Terrepene Carolina) is undeniably a creature of summer, emerging from hibernation in April or May and not returning to a spot beneath the leaf duff until October.

Michael Jones, turtle conservationist with the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, was more than happy to talk of box turtles Saturday afternoon at Harwich Community Center in a program sponsored by Harwich Conservation Trust.

“I spend a lot of time around the country looking at box turtles in the U.S. and Mexico,” he explained.

Cape Cod is home to the Eastern box turtle, which ranges as far west as Michigan and south to Florida, but there are other species scattered through Texas and the Yucatan.

“Box turtles have been around a long time. There were fully formed box turtles 20 million years ago from the upper Midwest,” Jones noted. “That’s recent in turtle history, which goes back 225 million years. In fossil records, during the ice age, there were enormous box turtles – more than 10 inches.”

Ten inches doesn’t seem all that big until you realize current box turtles measure less than 6 1/2 inches tip to tip.

Box turtles have rather high domed shells with a yellow/orange/brown mosaic of markings but what differentiates them is the hinged plastron (the bottom shell). The hinge allows the turtle to tuck in its head, tail and legs and close up tight – safe from most predators. That’s one reason they can live to more than 100 years. Automobiles and lawn mowers could shorten that, however.

Southeastern Massachusetts is a population center for box turtles. They seem to like dry piney woods. The subfamily box turtles belong to has 10 other turtles, five of which are in Massachusetts: the box, wood, spotted and Blandings turtles and small but fetching Muhlenberg’s bog turtle, which lives only in three Berkshire County fens. That indicates the state is somewhat of a hub for the group.

“They all spend a lot of time on land relative to other turtles and all 10 species are declining,” Jones noted.

Box turtles don’t begin breeding until they’re around 15 to 20 years old. The males sport a concave plastron because they climb atop the female during mating. They cease growing at age 20 but can be aged by observing how polished (smooth) the shell is. It takes about 65 years to become totally smooth.

“We really have ancients among us,” Jones noted. “They spend May and June in open fields. In central Massachusetts, power lines are hot spots.”

Bob Prescott of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has noted they nest in power lines on Cape Cod. Open sunny sandy habitats keep the eggs warm and roots away from the eggs.

Around the state they are most abundant in the Connecticut River valley, parts of Southeastern Massachusetts and on the Outer Cape

“North Eastham to Truro is one of the hottest spots in Massachusetts,” noted Prescott. “Kingston/Plymouth is another. Before the Europeans arrived no one has an idea what was here. They were almost wiped out by deforestation and agriculture, then they came back.”

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is an example. The area was farmed until 1920 or so and somewhere there must have been a remnant population.

“From there the population recovered,” Prescott said.

Prescott and his minions have since marked 300 different box turtles at the sanctuary.

“The rest of the Cape is so busy, carved up with roads, there’s very little chance on box turtles doing well,” Prescott opined.

While conventional wisdom had it that the turtles spent most of their lives in an area the size of a football field, long-term radio tracking shows periodically they wander farther and over time drift as the habitat changes. In the western part of the state, gravel pits and fields are favored locales.

“They seem to have an annual migration to a prime feeding area and back to the hibernacula,” Prescott said. “They’re most active in May and June. Then they sleep part of the summer when it’s so hot. They tend to go down into the soil.”

On Cape Cod, they can stay active until mid-October. Box turtles tend to avoid the heat of the mid-summer day, being most active early in the morning or at dusk, except on rainy or cloudy days.

Box turtles eat small bugs, slugs and worms as well as a vegetarian diet of berries, mushrooms, seeds, roots and leaves.

While turtles are killed crossing roads, Jones said mowing in fields is a worse problem.

Box turtles are a species of special concern in Massachusetts and the Natural Heritage program is compiling list of turtle hot spots. They are interested in any sightings of turtles alive or crushed on the road.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New England Aquarium announces new Marine Animal Rescue Headquarters

Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe

Recuperating sea turtles like this one at the New England Aquarium in Boston will soon be cared for at a Fore River Shipyard building in Quincy.

A plan unveiled today will bring plenty of new life to the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy – marine life, that is.

The New England Aquarium has announced it will lease and retrofit a 23,000 square-foot red-brick building on the property, turning it into the new headquarters of its Marine Animal Rescue Team. The building will also act as an off-site holding facility for exhibit animals.

Construction will be completed in phases over the next several years, with the first phase expected to finish in July. The rescue team plans to move into the building by November.

“The principal thing is that this new facility will give our biologists much, much greater flexibility to do their jobs,” said Tony LaCasse, aquarium spokesman. “It will also enhance our ability to bring in new exhibits.”

When animals are collected, they must be quarantined for 30 days before they can be placed in the aquarium's public tanks. This prevents the spread of illness and parasites, LaCasse said. The extra space will ensure that process is possible.

The aquarium is leasing the property from owner Jay Cashman, who is leading efforts to redevelop the Quincy Shipyard.

The new space will also be used to rehabilitate stranded, injured, and diseased marine animals found along the coasts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The team typically treats whales, dolphins, seals, and, perhaps most notably, sea turtles.

Anywhere from 25 to 150 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are found stranded each fall on Cape Cod beaches, LaCasse said. It is the most endangered marine turtle in the world.

During the summer, young Kemp’s Ridley turtles can be found on the south side of the Cape, feeding on crabs. LaCasse said they are probably then pulled north by a current that dumps them into Cape Cod Bay.

“Cape Cod Bay creates a big bucket,” LaCasse said. “They have to swim 25 miles north before they can start swimming south, and that’s very counterintuitive.”

As water temperatures drop, the turtles develop hypothermia. If the turtles get lucky, waves carry them onto beaches, where they are collected by volunteers and transported to the aquarium, where they get medical treatment that can take up to six months.

Since the early 1990s, the rescue team has rehabilitated over 500 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. The aquarium plans to make the new facility the center for this work.

“It’s an opportunity for us to help in the turnaround of a critically endangered species,” LaCasse said.

Although the new facility will not be open to the public, it may host open houses and field trips for local schools.

The building to be converted for the aquarium once was the hub of an important process in the manufacturing of oceangoing vessels. Hundreds of people worked there, fitting pipes with insulation that were later installed in the hulls of ships, Globe South reported Sunday.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Two families permanently protect rare brook habitat in West Wareham

WAREHAM - Malcolm (“Mack”) and Cathy Phinney and Peter and Heather Zine, West Wareham neighbors, donated conservation restrictions on nine acres of their abutting land to the Wareham Land Trust. In a binding legal document called a conservation restriction, the donors have agreed to limit future development of their land, and the Wareham Land Trust has assumed responsibility to ensure that the terms of the agreement are followed.

Patterson’s Brook runs along the property, providing a rare habitat in Wareham: a cold water habitat for brook trout.

Downstream from the property is the historic trout hatchery, once fed by the cool waters of this tributary to the Weweantic River. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has designated Patterson’s Brook as a cold water fisheries resource after conducting a survey and finding brook trout in the stream.

Brook trout, the only species of trout native to much of the eastern United States, require cool temperatures and clean water to survive. A once abundant resource, their populations are declining due to development, stream fragmentation and alteration of water flows.

“Brook trout are indicators of the health of the watersheds they live in. A decline is an early warning of an aquatic system at risk,” Heidi Blythe, land protection specialist for the Wareham Land Trust, said. “Their presence on the Phinney and Zine conservation lands is a significant natural resource, one of the primary reasons for the protection of this land.”

“The permanent protection of our land has been a long time goal,” Cathy Phinney, a nurse at Tobey Hospital, said. Her husband, Mack, is a retired science teacher and volunteers for several conservation organizations. His primary interest is protecting rivers and streams.

“Land surrounding small streams is a critical buffer,” he said. “Without the forested land along streams, the temperature of the water would increase, as would erosion rates and possible alterations of the water. Any of these could destroy this rare habitat.”

In addition to the rare cold water stream, the Phinney and Zine properties contain a certified vernal pool, habitat for fairy shrimp, wood frogs and spotted salamanders. Eastern box turtles, listed as a “species of special concern” by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, also find refuge on the land.

In addition to rare species habitat, the program has identified the Phinney and Zine land as a “Riverine Priority Vegetation Community,” one of eight natural systems most critical to biological diversity.

The land also protects drinking water by providing a recharge area for Wareham’s sole source aquifer, as rainwater filters through the mossy ground of the forest and wetlands.

The conservation restrictions are located in West Wareham, where recent residential and commercial developments are changing the look of the once rural area.

“I want future generations of children to know what this area used to look like,” Mack Phinney said.

For Peter and Heather Zine, the reason to protect their land is personal.

“We want our daughter, Hannah, to grow up seeing the beauty of the natural forest and brook. It was an easy decision to permanently protect this for future generations to enjoy.”

“We are grateful to the Phinney and Zine families for protecting this truly rare cold water resource,” Mary McFadden, founder of the Wareham Land Trust, said. “We hope others will be inspired by this generous donation so we can protect a longer corridor along Patterson’s Brook and our other rivers and streams.”

The Wareham Land Trust is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the diverse lands and natural resources of Wareham. For more information about land protection options and about the organization, call 508-295-0211 or visit


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Audubon tallies Cape turtle strandings

WELLFLEET — The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has tallied up the numbers for this year's turtle stranding season and the total is the third largest since the facility started keeping records.

Of the 192 turtles recovered from Cape beaches, there were 178 Kemp's ridleys, eight green turtles, four loggerheads, and two unidentified specimens. This year's stranding total was surpassed in 1999, when there were 278 stranded turtles, and 2002, when there were 201.

Some sea turtles become stunned by the cold when fall arrives, bringing chilly waters and air temperatures. With their metabolism slowing down, the turtles can't escape and eventually float to shore, where they either freeze to death or are rescued. All of the turtle species affected in this year's stranding season are considered threatened, with the Kemp's ridley turtles among the most endangered in the world.

Cold-stunned sea turtles are usually rescued by beach patrols manned by Mass Audubon staffers and volunteers. They are taken to the New England Aquarium in Boston for rehabilitation if they are still alive.

The stranding season ends when ocean temperatures drop to the point where any remaining turtles die. Water temperatures were between 35 and 42 degrees this week — far too cold for the marine reptiles.

Copyright © Cape Cod Media Group, a division of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Warm fall may have misled turtles

This Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle was found in Great Esker Park, Weymouth. The species is listed as endangered. (Claudia Bett)

Some being found along South Shore

WEYMOUTH - Several specimens of an endangered sea turtle have been found on the South Shore, creating a bit of a mystery for members of the New England Aquarium staff.

Aquarium officials say that finding the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle in this area may be unprecedented. The latest find, the carcass of one of the turtles, was made in Weymouth last week, following the finding of two others in Hull and Quincy.

“When you get three of anything, you start paying attention,’’ said aquarium spokesman Tony Lacasse.

Biologists say that each year, juvenile Kemp’s Ridley turtles make their way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Cape Cod area, where they feed on crabs before returning south around Labor Day. There are always some who linger and, as the temperature drops, become cold-stunned, or hypothermic, floating on the waves at the mercy of wind and current.

This has been a big year for the sheer number of Kemp’s Ridley turtles, said Lacasse, who conjectured that it might be because the start of fall was mild and lulled the turtles into staying when it was time to go.

Another possible reason is that a local current deposited the turtles in Cape Cod Bay in late summer, leaving them a window of only a few weeks to figure out how to get out of there. If the turtles have not started south by mid-October, their ability to swim is reduced. By November, when temperatures drop to 50 degrees and lower, they are in real trouble.

Lacasse said he wondered whether the turtles that found their way to the South Shore might have originally been situated near the top of Cape Cod Bay and were blown into Boston Harbor before eventually drifting to the South Shore.

Stragglers luckier than the ones found in Hull, Quincy, and Weymouth were discovered close to the Cape after Thanksgiving. A total of 77 were rescued and taken to the aquarium by staff and volunteers at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Most of them are now recuperating under care of biologists at the aquarium, who have been slowly restoring their body temperature and giving them antibiotics, so that pathogens that have been dormant in the hypothermic state do not have a chance to quickly multiply.

The ones that were not rescued were probably caught up in currents that took them further out to sea or swept them inland, where they landed on shore and could not withstand the cold temperatures, one of the possible scenarios for what might have happened with the specimens found recently.

A necropsy should reveal more clues.

“It’s a puzzle, a genuine puzzle,’’ Lacasse said.

Constance Lindner can be reached at