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Jersey Shore kindergartners release baby turtles into the wild

A program to bolster the diamond terrapin population that is a Jersey Shore conservation tradition has expanded this spring to include year-round GPS tracking to learn more about the unique reptiles.

Lisa Ferguson, director of research and conservation at the Wetlands Institute, teaches kindergartners from Stone Harbor School about diamondback terrapins, as the kindergartners release them into nearby marshes as part of a program by the Wetlands Institute and Stockton University.
Lisa Ferguson, director of research and conservation at the Wetlands Institute, teaches kindergartners from Stone Harbor School about diamondback terrapins, as the kindergartners release them into nearby marshes as part of a program by the Wetlands Institute and Stockton University.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

Talk about a crowd of rambunctious youngsters. At the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, they were literally climbing over each other.

Not the kindergarten class visiting for the day — they were well-behaved — but the rowdy ones sporting shells.

“Are you ready to release some turtles?” called out institute research director Lisa Ferguson.


The kindergarten class from Stone Harbor School was on hand to help free 16 orphaned, lab-raised diamondback terrapins to the Cape May County marshes where they would hopefully continue to grow and eventually reproduce. Despite a rough start, the turtles were going into the world healthy and strong. They each had a name, thanks to their young friends.

The terrapins are part of a conservation program started by former Wetlands Institute research director Roger Woods in 1989 out of concern for their dwindling population. No two terrapins are alike — they each have their own particular markings.

The children who took part in the terrapins’ release are part of an important community support system that helps the scientists at the institute and their colleagues at Stockton University bolster the terrapin population and give them a better chance at survival.

“These turtles are special little guys,” Brian Williamson, institute research scientist, told the students. “They’ve been given a second chance.”

The terrapins released last week all came from eggs harvested from some of the several hundred mother terrapins killed on local roadways last year. Raised for nearly a year in a special head start program, they are incubated at a higher temperature to ensure they are born female, said Ferguson. When they are released the following year, they’re closer to the size of a 3-year-old terrapin reared in the wild. The head start gives them a better chance at survival.

Wild terrapins face other threats as well — habitat destruction, poaching for illegal sale, and drowning in fishing gear like crab traps. Conservationists advocate outfitting traps with fixtures that prevent terrapins from getting caught. Institute staff regularly patrols shore roads and asks the public to keep an eye out for injured terrapins that can be saved. Stockton’s Animal Lab rehabilitates up to 1,000 of the turtles a year.

Terrapin hatchlings often get trapped in storm drains as they make their way from their hatching areas into the marshes. Every year, shore residents step in to help the scientists save as many as they can.

Members of the public are encouraged to help grown terrapins safely cross roadways. Very often, they’re female terrapins moving between their marsh habitat and higher ground where they lay their eggs.

Tracking the turtles

Terrapins are the only turtles that live their entire lives in coastal salt marshes’ brackish waters — a mix of saltwater and freshwater. They eat salt marsh snails, which helps prevent the snails from overgrazing marsh grasses and aids in maintaining the marsh ecosystem.

Increasingly, the researchers have been finding ways to gain more insight into the terrapins’ lives and habits.

“Just this year, we’ve started a project using GPS transmitters to be tracking them,” said Ferguson.

The little devices, glued onto terrapins’ shells, will provide year-round information about terrapin behavior, where they spend their time, what environmental features are helpful to them, and what threats they face.

The three-year GPS program is in addition to an ongoing microchip tagging program, which has also yielded a lot of information about the terrapin, including that they have been known to return to the same area year after year to nest.

Ferguson said there is some indication that head start terrapins may sexually mature earlier than the approximately seven years required for females that spend their first year in the wild. That could help boost the survival of a creature under consideration for status as a species of special concern by the state of New Jersey.

Terrapins in the Classroom

Meanwhile, schools around the state help with the head start effort. The institute and Stockton partner in Terrapins in the Classroom, a program in which orphaned hatchlings are raised in the state’s schools for the year before it’s time to release them. The teachers get training in the critters’ care and the kids get a learning experience.

The terrapins that the Stone Harbor kids came to release had been raised at Stockton. Being so close, the students got to visit the baby terrapins and see their progress.

“They kind of watched them grow up,” said their teacher, Samantha Gilbert.

A Cape May native, Gilbert said it’s been a great learning opportunity.

“I love to implement any type of live nature into the kids’ education,” she said. “I feel like it’s very important, especially in this day and age.”

The kids came bearing gifts. They brought a mural they made honoring the young lady terrapins they’d be sending forth and the names they gave to each — Sparkle Dust, Lily, Cutie, and, for one different drummer, Bob. They also came with a check for $200. They raised the money by selling turtle-shaped cookies they baked to help their hard-shell friends.

But the really big deal was taking those eager terrapins down to the marsh’s edge. Kids and reptiles were raring to go.

“Bye, Trigger,” said Harry Krafczek, 6, as he placed his terrapin on the wet marsh grass. “Good luck!”

Conrad Hall, 6, also gave his terrapin Beta Fish an enthusiastic send-off. Like a lot of the children, he’s been impressed by what he’s learned about the critters.

“They can live in water and on land!” he said.

Kathryn Hodge, 6, named her terrapin Velvet, after her favorite dessert, red velvet cupcakes.

Because Velvet had been microchipped, like all the little terrapins released that day, Kathryn knew they might meet again one day.

“I would like that,” she said. “I hope she has her own babies.”