Saturday, August 20, 2011

First Terrapin Hatchling 2011 Emerges

Tiny Diamondback Terrapin Hatchling Emerges

By Don Lewis

The first diamondback terrapin hatchling of 2011 emerged on Friday afternoon after 63 days of incubation under the hot summer sands of Lieutenant Island in South Wellfleet. Terrapins are medium sized coastal turtles found along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. They can be found in Southern New England estuaries and salt marsh ecosystems, and are protected as a threatened species in Massachusetts and an endangered species in Rhode Island. Wellfleet Bay on Outer Cape Cod marks the northernmost habitat in the world for this rare hard-shelled reptile.

In June and July terrapin females crawl ashore from brackish estuaries to lay nests in sandy uplands. They deposit an average of 12-to-13 eggs in each clutch, and usually lay two nests a year. As many as 90% of unprotected nests can be devoured by a host of predators, large and small, from raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes to fly larvae, red ants and beach grass roots. Once hatchlings emerge from the nest, they fall prey to these same large predators, augmented by crows, gulls and raptors, as they scramble to the safety of nursery habitat in the salt marsh. As the tide floods in, crabs and fish join the attack on these tiny, yet tasty critters.

"Pipped" Terrapin Egg Nearly Ready to Hatch

When the Turtle Journal team ( checked a nest that had been laid on 17 June on the south shore of Lieutenant Island, they discovered that one of the top eggs had "pipped." Turtle hatchlings are equipped with a small, sharp egg tooth just below the nostrils. When ready, the hatchling scratches this tool against the egg wall until the shell is pierced. The initial hole quickly oozes albumin (see above), and the baby turtle begins to use its strong, sharp claws to rip and widen the breach. Observations have shown that the whole process can take four to five days from initial "pipping" of the egg until the hatchling emerges, tunnels to the surface and scrambles to the safety of nearby vegetation.

As the team probed deeper into the nest, they discovered an egg that had been "pipped" for several days with a substantial tear in the shell and a hatchling itching for freedom. As soon as sunlight touched the baby's face, it sprang to action and squirmed free of its egg shell. This hatchling had incubated in its egg for 63 days. The average incubation time for mid-June nests ranges between 55 and 75 days, depending on summer temperatures and exposure of the sand atop the nest to direct sunlight.

Terrapin Hatchling Season Begins in Southeastern Massachusetts

Friday's discovery is a harbinger of things to come ... and to come quickly. Once hatchling emergence begins, it kicks instantly into high gear. The beautiful warm sunshine forecast for this weekend will cue hundreds of hatchlings to tunnel to the surface and scramble for safety. Predators will be similarly cued to hatchling emergence, and those few feet from the exposed nest in sandy uplands to camouflage in thick vegetation are the most dangerous passage in the life of a terrapin. As you stroll the shoreline this weekend, look down and keep a sharp watch for tiny babies bubbling to the surface of dunes, coastal banks and dirt paths and roadways. If you discover a baby turtle, give a call to the 24/7 turtle hotline at 508-274-5108.

Mass Audubon and Turtle Journal have been involved in diamondback terrapin conservation from the South Coast of Massachusetts to the Outer Cape for more than three decades to reverse the decline of this threatened species. Hundreds of terrapin nests that were discovered in June and July by researchers and volunteers have been protected with predator excluders (chicken wire cages). If you run across one of these protected nests that dot the Wellfleet coastline, and you detect a baby turtle within the cage, give a holler to the hotline.

Not only diamondback terrapins are hatching. Other Massachusetts turtle species, such as painteds, spotteds, boxes and snappers, are also ready to emerge throughout the Commonwealth.

If you're looking for a nature walk that might offer the chance to spot one of these exquisite hatchlings, the Goose Pond or the Bay View trails at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary off West Road in South Wellfleet would be a perfect choice.

For more information about this topic, for access to illustrative images or to arrange an interview, contact Don Lewis at (508) 274-5108 or email him at The embedded images are the sole intellectual property of Don Lewis and Sue Wieber Nourse who authorize the use of these photographs to illustrate this story.

Don Lewis is executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Districts; Sue Wieber Nourse is a marine researcher, textbook author and master educator. Known as the Turtle Guy, Don and his spouse and partner, Sue Wieber Nourse, have led research, rescue and conservation activities on Cape Cod and around the globe for more than a decade. They own and operate Cape Cod Consultants, an environmental solutions company that specializes in wildlife management and habitat assessments that protect nature while enabling dreams. Lewis and Wieber Nourse document the nature of coastal Massachusetts on their web site, Turtle Journal (

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ten rescued turtles released off Cape Cod


Workers from the New England Aquarium have released 10 endangered sea turtles back into the wild, months after they were rescued after stranding themselves on Cape Cod.

Aquarium officials say the turtles were released from a lobster boat Friday night in Nantucket Sound.

The turtles were the last group to be released from among those rescued during the 2010 stranding season. The turtles became trapped in Cape Cod Bay as the water chilled through the autumn, before washing up on beaches in November and December.

Aquarium officials say these turtles were among the season's toughest cases. Some had major shell fractures that required surgery, others had pneumonia and exotic infections.

Two of the released turtles had satellite tags attached, so their movements can be tracked.


© Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Second Dead Leatherback Turtle Found

Nantucket Sound

By: John H. Hough
Published: 08/02/11

A second leatherback turtle was found dead in Nantucket Sound this week. A 567-pound sea turtle was discovered by a boater off Edgartown floating entangled in a net with a buoy wrapped around its neck.

The creature was found at 7:20 AM on Sunday and towed to the mouth of Falmouth Inner Harbor where it could be picked up by the New England Aquarium and taken to its new Quincy laboratory for a necropsy.

Officials moored the turtle, which was floating, near the entrance of the harbor out of the way of boaters, about 20 feet from the signal light at the harbor’s entrance.

Evan A. Hutker and Anna L. Mihai, who were having dinner near the mouth of Falmouth Inner Harbor at the time of the turtle’s arrival, could not make out what it was with any certainty, but soon noticed that what was being towed was a large, dead animal. “At first I thought it was a big pile of nets” said Mr. Hutker. “When we looked closer it looked like a turtle.”

The turtle came to Falmouth Harbor less than a week after a 440-pound leatherback washed ashore on the beach in front of the Tides Motel. That sea turtle was found upside down with four propeller strikes and hull paint on its back, suggesting it succumbed to one of the Cape’s most common causes of leatherback fatality: being hit by recreational boaters.

After spending the night moored outside of Falmouth Inner Harbor, the turtle found entangled off Edgartown was towed by the Falmouth Harbor Master’s office into the harbor where it could be lifted out of the water and into the bed of the New England Aquarium’s pickup truck.

Assistant Harbor Master Daniel Gould, escorted by the Massachusetts environmental police, motored up the harbor with the carcass in tow. Mr. Gould backed the turtle dockside near a slip at the far end of the parking lot and the town boat ramp while Deputy Harbor Master William Palm maneuvered a forklift into place. The carcass was attached to the forklift and hauled slowly out of the water and onto the pavement while lines were untied on the carcass and the lift’s forks readjusted. Mr. Palm put the forks to the pavement to get under the turtle, and with patient precision, lifted it into the pickup truck.

The law enforcement branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be investigating the entangled line that was still attached to a trap when the turtle was taken into the harbor.

The leatherback hauled out yesterday that was found entangled in gear, New England Aquarium spokesman Anthony LaCasse pointed out, is interesting because in the span of less than a week the two most common causes of death for leatherback sea turtles may have turned up in Falmouth, though he was quick to point out that at this point both turtles may have suffered their respective fates postmortem, and as of yet there is no definitive cause of death.

Fascinated onlookers came down to see the carcass that had formerly been a living juvenile leatherback weighing more than 600 pounds before decomposition took its toll.

The leatherback, which is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered, exhibits some unusual qualities for turtles. It holds the title of world’s largest reptile, weighing in around 800 to 900 pounds; the largest on record was over 2,000 pounds. Strikingly different from most sea turtles, their carapace, or shell, is not made of bone. Instead about an inch and a half of tough leathery skin covers their ridged back, hence their name, leatherback.
An unusual characteristic among reptiles is the fact that the leatherback has the ability to regulate its internal temperature.
Mr. LaCasse warned that boaters who find leatherback sea turtles entangled should not attempt to free them. Their size and strength can be a serious danger for people who, despite good intentions, could end up themselves entangled with a leviathan many times their own size. Boaters are advised to report the incident to the Coast Guard and stay on the scene so that trained officials can find the turtle and free it.

The Center for Coastal Studies freed two leatherbacks in the last week, including a 700-pound turtle disentangled off Sesuit harbor in Dennis.

Robert Prescott, director of the Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, noted that a number of dead turtles have been spotted in Vineyard Sound as well as the reports of several dead loggerheads washing ashore.

Several officials noted the increase in the jellyfish population to be an indication of a possible increase in the local leatherback sea turtle population as they follow their food into the area.