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News and Resources

Don't Fear the Turtle - May 4, 2011

 

Our beautiful and iconic state reptile, the northern diamondback terrapin, makes its home in Maryland's Chesapeake and coastal bays. But with a variety of threats facing terrapin, and uncertainty about their ability to adapt to these threats, one must wonder how long our bays will continue to support this elegant inhabitant of Maryland's waterways.

Similar concerns are shared worldwide with 40 percent of all turtle species threatened with extinction. As it is with most of our environmental woes, we have the choice to bemoan the situation or to exercise our individual ability to make changes for a healthier and more bountiful world. This year choose change and join in the 2011 Year of the Turtle celebration. Conservation organizations around the world are cooperating to raise awareness about the plight of turtles and to encourage citizens to take steps to stave the loss of turtles.

The threats to terrapin in Maryland's coastal bays are many including habitat loss, ensnarement in crab pots, vehicle strikes, heavy nest predation, and summer algae blooms which choke out prey species upon which terrapin feed. All of us have in some way contributed to these problems and we all have the ability to take steps to reduce threats to our cherished terrapin.

Citizens can help protect northern diamondback terrapin in a number of ways:

1. Install TEDs (terrapin excluder devices) on your recreational crab pots. This quick and easy method of saving terrapin is legally required of all citizens using recreational crab pots. Terrapin are lured into traps by the bait left for crabs and usually drown because they are unable to surface for air. Learn more about TEDs at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/pdfs/2010TerrapinBrochure.pdf.

2. You can join cleanup events and keep both residential and commercial trash cans closed tightly. Populations of raccoons, gulls, skunks and other opportunistic feeders are inflated because of easy access to food sources discarded by humans. Increases in these populations means terrapin eggs and hatchlings have more predators eager to gobble them up. Turtles of all kinds mistake plastics and other indigestible for food which can cause injury or death.

3. When it is safe to pull over and help a terrapin cross the road, please do. The majority of terrapin struck by vehicles are females searching for a sandy place to nest. They may be searching for the same nesting area from which they hatched. Powerful instincts direct the travels of a turtle, so move it to the side of the road which it faces.

4. Soften your shorelines. Bulkheads and riprap prevent terrapin from reaching suitable nesting sites and have, in some places, eliminated traditional nesting beaches. There are effective methods of property erosion prevention which incorporate structures that provide habitat for terrapin and other wildlife while being aesthetically pleasing. Softened shorelines which incorporate native plants provide valuable habitat and they help to reduce nutrient pollution in our coastal bays, improving water quality.

5. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program would like to invite you to become a citizen scientist in support of terrapin. Anyone who sees a terrapin, whether dead or alive, on the land or in the water, adult, hatchling or egg can contribute valuable data to a source of information designed to help direct future terrapin conservation efforts. To join in this effort, please log onto www.mdcoastalbays.org to fill out our Report-a-Terrapin form. If possible, provide pictures and GPS coordinates. Reports of terrapin nesting in backyards, golf courses and other marginal nesting locations will be especially helpful as they provide insight into how well terrapin are adapting to the loss of nesting sites.

All around the world turtles are revered for cultural and religious reasons. In the coastal bays, terrapin help control marsh periwinkle, a snail species that, if not eaten by terrapin, could decimate large portions of our marshes.

If you enjoy the scenery and wildlife of our coastal bays please consider making an effort to promote diamondback terrapin survival and join the Maryland Coastal Bays Program in celebrating the Year of the Turtle.

We invite you to join us for a Terrapin Blitz weekend May 21-22. Volunteers are needed to assist with surveying creeks along the coastal bays for terrapin. For more information, call 410-213-2297 or please email info@mdcoastalbays.org.

Bill Mahoney is the Chesapeake Conservation Corps volunteer hosted by the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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