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Their moms were roadkill, but these South Jersey hatchling terrapins get new chance at life

Each spring and summer, thousands of female diamondback terrapins along the New Jersey coast make a hazardous trek across roads so they can lay their eggs in wetlands. Many get crushed by drivers.

Stockton Animal Lab Supervisor, John Rokita, points out repairs made to two different terrapin turtles shell's in Galloway, NJ, on Friday, October 2, 2020.
Stockton Animal Lab Supervisor, John Rokita, points out repairs made to two different terrapin turtles shell's in Galloway, NJ, on Friday, October 2, 2020.Read moreDAVE HERNANDEZ / For the Inquirer

John Rokita plunged his hand into a stainless steel tank at Stockton University on Friday, scooping a lively mature female diamondback terrapin from the water.

She had been found battered, possibly while crossing a road. Her carapice, or upper shell, had been cracked, and her lower shell broken until Rokita and his team patched her with glue.

“This was a fractured area,” he said pointing to her shell in two places, “so we put an epoxy patch here, and then we had to patch this as well. But she’s eating. She’s solid as a rock. She’s good to go.”

Within an hour, the mature terrapin and dozens of more recent hatchlings were released to swim free just a few miles north in Reed’s Bay as part of an ongoing rescue mission that’s saved thousands of diamondback terrapins over three decades.

Each spring and summer, thousands of female Northern diamondback terrapins along the New Jersey coast make an arduous — and often hazardous — trek across roads so they can lay their eggs in wetlands. Terrapins are turtles that live in brackish water, which is a mix of fresh and saltwater. Many get crushed in the trek by drivers rushing to the beaches. Other terrapins get stuck in storm drains. Still more get injured in the wild.

Lab workers at Stockton in Galloway, N.J. gather the eggs of the dead terrapins, and incubate them until they hatch. The also tend to injured turtles, sometimes for years. The turtles get released when staff think they are ready for the wild.

The university’s Diamondback Headstart Program was started in 1989 by now retired professor Roger Wood, who witnessed the annual road kill and decided to do something about it. The university also works with the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, which has its own terrapin program.

Rokita, assistant supervisor for Academic Lab Services at Stockton, said terrapin eggs must be incubated at 30 degrees Celcius (86 F). That way, the terrapins, dependent on temperature for their sex, will become female. A few degrees less, and they would become male. The delicate process takes 10 months to a year for the eggs to hatch and mature enough to withstand the wild.

The terrapins are about a half-inch long when hatched, usually in May. They are fed a mix of pellets and formulas until they can begin eating chopped, locally caught Atlantic silverside fish. Rokita said the fish are an important addition to the diet because the feeding teach the terrapins how and what to eat in the wild.

“They need to be between three and four inches when we release them,” Rokita said, “so they have a chance in the wild against larger predators.”

Predators include gulls, herons, raccoons, and even skunks.

The diamondback terrapin is listed as a species of concern, and is not endangered, though its numbers are much lower than in decades past, when they were allowed to be harvested.

They are sometimes poached and sold illegally in the U.S. and oversees. A Bucks County man was arrested in 2019 for taking terrapins from New Jersey’s marshes and selling them online. Federal investigators found thousands of hatchlings in his home, valued at $550,000 on the black market. The man was sentenced to six months in prison.

Rokita and others from the diamondback program drove several crates of the turtles to Glenn by the Bay, a park in Galloway set on 72 acres just off Reeds Bay, with a view of the Atlantic City skyline in the distance. The land was once owned by the Glenn family. Tim Glenn and his mother, Anne-Marie Glenn, were there to help release the turtles.

Tim Glenn has been helping with the rescue effort for years. On Friday, he stooped at the bank of a channel his family once owned as part of riparian rights, and let a turtle slip into the mud.

Many of the turtles have been rescued by Evelyn Kide, of Ventnor. She collects them from storm drains near Ski Beach.

“I first stumbled upon them when I was a kid,” she said. “And I’ve been looking for them and bringing them to Stockton every year since.”

She, too, let several turtles go into the brackish water on Friday as part of the release team.

Now is a good time to release hatchlings into the wild because the water is still in the 60- to 70-degree range, and the terrapins can find ample food, if needed. Soon, though, the water will turn cold, forcing the terrapins to burrow into the mud to survive the winter.

“They’ll slow their respiration down to where they barely just survive in hibernation,” Rokita said. “In one of those miracles of nature, they’ll be raring to go next spring.”