by Wynne Crombie
The five-year-olds proudly wore t-shirts that read, “SLOW…Turtle Crossing” across the front. The kindergarten class from the Avalon/Stone Harbor kindergarten near Stone Harbor, New Jersey had made and sold turtle-shaped cookies at their school to help save the terrapins, small turtles, of the near-by salt marshes. Their job? Help save rescued eggs.
Area schoolchildren have become involved in a hands-on, “Save the Terrapin” program, at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor. As part of the school program, the children learn that many of the terrapin’s eggs are in danger after mother terrapins are killed on the highway while travelling to their nesting sites. The mother terrapin likes to build her nests on sand dunes above the high tide line. The male stays behind in the safety of the marshes.
Every day a patrol car from the Wetlands Institute searches the highway for turtles that have been harmed. As many as 500 to 600 terrapins are killed during the May-June nesting season. The eggs rescued by the Wetlands Patrol car, are taken back to the Institute where they are incubated. Incubation involves creating a warm situation that copies the mother’s warmth.
In addition to raising money, the school children participate in taking the hatchling turtles back into their natural wetlands habitat. Many grow attached to the turtles and even give them names.
After hatching, the young turtles don’t eat for several weeks due to the built-in food supply from the mother. Then, they are deliberately kept from hibernation. This makes them hungry and speeds up the growing process. Their diet is made up of chopped up minnows, mealworms and Purina trout chow.”
The hatchlings stay at the Institute for nearly a year, in a process called headstarting. The terrapins grow until their shell lengths reach 2 to 3 inches. This way, when they are released, they are more able to deal with enemies than if they were released as soon as they hatched. Every year approximately 250 headstarters are taken back to the wetlands.
When the terrapins are ready, the kindergarteners march to the dock. Adults show them how to carefully release the turtles. There are many "oohs" and "aahs" as the little turtles disappeared into the wetlands. There, amidst cheers, the children release the headstarters.
The children are warned to watch out for those jaws as the baby terrapins squirm in their hands. The head and hind webbed feet make constant thumping motions.
Terrapins are found in temperate and subtropical areas such as the eastern and gulf coasts of the United States. They do not naturally occur in fresh water. This is one of the reasons they do not make good pets.
While most people like turtles, the terrapin has been having trouble with humans. A hundred years ago, humans ate terrapins as a delicacy, or a special food. Now, children of Stone Harbor are proud of the work they do in helping the terrapins to live. As each summer season approaches, the rescue cycle begins again.
BONUS ACTIVITY: Color your terrapin! Just click on the picture, and print. Want to share how you did? Grab a parent, take a picture, and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Art by Anne Adix Faibe