Summer Not So Fun for Terrapins
by L. Ganss
©2003 The Beachcomber

My favorite time to kayak is on a calm summer morning, before the powerboaters are around. Slipping silently down an estuary creek I count the grey heads of terrapins poking up around my little boat. One... two... three.... four... they disappear as quickly as I spot them. Sometimes I am treated to a rare glimpse of a few basking along the marsh sedge before they hear me and instantly slip back into the bay, like a dream.
The diamondback terrapin (malaclemys terrapin) is the only North American turtle uniquely adapted to brackish (salty, but not as salty as the ocean) water. Found exclusively in salt marshes and esturaries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, this beautiful turtle was once prized for its flesh and nearly hunted to extinction, but today its numbers suffer more significantly as a result of drowning in crab pots and death by auto.
Living (with some luck) 30-40 years, the diamondback reaches a length of 9 inches, and its markings vary with each individual. The top shell, or carapace, is patterned in grey and black with the scutes covering the carapace forming diamond-shaped concentric rings; the legs and head are light grey speckled with black. A white rim around the mouth gives it a rather cheery look, despite it’s hissing and puffing when handled. A strong swimmer equipped with webbed feet, terrapins eat snails, small fish and crabs in addition to some general scavenging.
Every summer from early June to mid July, when the tide is right (and the greenheads are fierce!), the female terrapin leaves the water to lay her eggs. Ideally, she is searching for a high, warm plot of sand, but these days often has to settle for gravelly driveways or packed fill. Coupled with the high-risk proposition of crossing roads to find a nesting site, egg laying is a challenge. You might ask: Is this not a very bright turtle? Couldn’t she find a better spot, without walking along highways and getting underfoot in my garden? Intelligence aside, one theory is that she may be honing in on the same site where she was hatched, perhaps two or three decades ago! Obviously, coastal development has made this quest daunting. I have seen turtles in the middle of the road, nose down, circling and crisscrossing endlessly as if trying to find a way to get beneath the asphalt (If I see this go on too long, I will put them back in the bay, under the very unscientific assumption that they are by now a bit addled by the hot pavement and sun, and need a fresh start. Plus it is too nerve-wracking to watch.)
Let’s assume she has found a suitable place for her nest. Digging with her back legs, she hollows out a long, flask-shaped hole. She then deposits 10-20 leathery, white, oval eggs, carefully covers them and packs the sand down. Then, in one last effort to give her offspring protection from potential nest robbers, she uses her back legs to fling sand around the area to disguise the nest. This gesture seemed to me at once futile and sad when, one summer, to my horror, a raccoon easily discovered and dug up over a dozen nests in my yard.
Given the right conditions, baby terrapins will hatch out in about 90 days, and make their way to the water. In September, tiny hatchlings can sometimes be found plodding about my yard (or, strangely, in the garage!), looking for the bay and, at times, stymied when confronted by an insurmountable obstacle like, say, a house or a bulkhead. Whenever I find these misguided turtles I put them in a quiet spot at the edge of the water, when no hungry gulls are around looking for bite-sized turtle snacks. Once back in the bay, these 1-1/2 inch hatchlings will try to survive a different set of challenges, including more hungry gulls and fish, and the dreaded crab pot.
The attraction of turtles to crab traps, or pots, may be the bait or the crabs themselves, but the fact is that terrapins love crab traps. Unfortunately, if not able to surface for air, terrapins will drown, which makes commercial crab traps the number one killer of terrapins. Legally, traps must be checked and emptied at least once every 72 hours; ideally, they should be checked more frequently, since turtles have a hard time holding their breath for 72 hours! Since an estimated 30-40,000 terrapins die in crab pots in New Jersey alone, the state now requires the use of turtle excluders on the openings of these traps. This is a simple device fitted on the entrance, which blocks the larger terrapins from entering the trap.
What can you do help? Well, if you use a commercial-type crab trap (you need a recreational license to do so) check it often. If you see crab pots set out and not checked regularly, call the NJ DEP’s Divison of Fish, Game and Wildlife. All pots set by commercial crabbers should have visible markers with numbers on them. If they don’t, they may be illegal, and should be reported anyway. Being the suspicious sort, I have checked commercial traps that were unattended, and found them full of dead terrapins, in addition to live crabs feasting on the terrapins. This is also a danger with a lost or abandoned pot; the dead creatures inside attract more crabs and turtles, and it perpetuates a "killing zone." For this reason, biodegradable panels are now also required on commercial-type crab traps.
If you see a female crossing the road during nesting season (and it is safe to stop) you can help her across the road. Always move any turtle in the direction they were heading, or they will just turn around and proceed, robot-like, back over the busy road you just saved them from. Handle them carefully; I get a firm grip on either side of the shell, between the front and back legs. Though they make a great show of hissing and sometimes even snapping, they rarely bite. Their claws, however, are sharp and they may flail vigorously, so be careful.
If you find one digging in your yard, or along side the road, just leave her alone (you can watch from a distance). You might want to stick around to help her back to the bay. She will be eager to get the heck away from you, and will surprise you with her speedy escape! It is a good idea to mark the nest if it is in your yard, (I usually put a few clam shells around it) to see if the eggs hatch, and also to remind yourself not to dig there. Sometimes if the eggs were laid too late, or the nest wasn’t warm enough, the hatchlings will winter over, meaning the young will emerge the following spring. Interestingly, temperature also plays a critical role in determining the sex of the turtles. The warmer the nest, the more females it will produce.
Don’t dig up any turtle eggs, even if you think they are in an inconvenient location. Nature has cleverly designed the egg-laying process for the hatchlings benefit. Within hours of being laid, the yolk sacs attach themselves to the roof, as it were, of the eggshell, so that the hatchling will develop rightside up, and be in a good position to dig out. The relative position of all the eggs in the nest help the young dig out too. One hatching most likely spurs on the next egg to hatch, and dig upwards, and so on. If you inadvertently uncover a nest in your garden, put them carefully back where you found them, buried closely together.
One of the saddest sights on a busy July 4th morning is seeing a bloody, cracked-open terrapin, in a hopeless attempt to cross the causeway, struck by an unwary driver. There is not much you can do about that, but hopefully somewhere there is another one that you may be able to save. Or maybe, if you live by the bay and didn’t bulkhead your entire property, you might leave a sandy area for egg laying. And watch those crab traps.

The Wetlands Institute ( Stone Harbor, NJ, has an Adopt-An-Egg program (they retrieve and incubate eggs from road-killed terrapins), and promotes the conservation of coastal ecosystems. Other ways to help turtles (of all kinds) are to support turtle conservation and wild and open space land acquisition.

L.Ganss lives by Little Egg Harbor Bay and, with her 7 year old son Noah, is busy during nesting season helping terrapins cross the road, watching the nests, and posting signs along the road warning drivers of turtle crossings. She has hatched and released over 100 terrapin eggs.