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Life marshes on for rescued terrapins

By BRIAN IANIERI Staff Writer, (609) 463-6713
Press of Atlantic City

SEA ISLE CITY - cq: Roger Wood; Christina Watters; Ben Atkinson; Roz Herlands; Ginny Carlin; Barbara Rice

Roger Wood drove slowly on Landis Avenue - a notorious killing field - looking for female turtles whose two-lane crossing to hatch eggs in the sand dunes can turn ugly.

On Wednesday afternoon, a car had crunched one pregnant turtle to pieces. Another turtle, less than 100 yards away, tried to cross the road anyway, standing alongside the shoulder and then darting for the dunes.

"No, no, no, mama," yelled Christina Watters, who sat in the backseat of the moving "Turtle Patrol" vehicle - a Subaru Baja - as she saw two cars passing the moving turtle.

They missed, and Watters jumped from the car and carried the terrapin to the dunes. It was one of more than 20 rescues Wednesday.

Wood, the director of research at the Wetlands Institute and a Richard Stockton College of New Jersey zoology professor, and Watters, the coordinator of the institute's terrapin project, took the afternoon road patrol, part of a 15-year Wetlands project to protect, save and study the turtles.

The project, which includes college interns and foreign students, involves patrolling a 35-mile circuit from Stone Harbor to Strathmere, helping healthy turtles across the road, mending injured ones and harvesting eggs from dead ones.

For about a six-week period, which started about two weeks ago, many female turtles cross roads with fast-moving traffic.

And in the slow-moving world of turtles, speed kills. Volunteers patrol roads five times a day. If they find a dead pregnant turtle, they can incubate the eggs; and 30 to 40 percent of the time, those turtles hatch, Watters said.

Turtles can hold eight to 12 eggs, and if the eggs do not cook on the road or get eaten, they have a chance of hatching.

"They need our help more than anything else," said intern Ben Atkinson, who attends Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.

A turtle's life is a fight against the odds.

In the wild, predators eat about 90 percent of eggs before they hatch, Wood said, noting that the figures are informed guesses. Of that 10 percent that hatch, many are eaten in the next few years.

"Years ago, I named them seagull potato chips," Wood said.

The odds of a turtle egg growing to maturity are slim; about 1 in 500 make it, Wood said.

When a vehicle kills a female terrapin, "That's one of those 500," he said.

"It's so sad to stop, see a turtle and see somebody go 65 mph past - smash," said Roz Herlands, a professor of biology at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

So far this year, 117 road kills were reported.

Turtles usually come out at night and after rain, but recently patrols have spotted turtles at other times, Wood said.

Female turtles (all the road deaths are females) leave the marshes this time of year to seek high, dry ground for their eggs. Sand dunes are popular places, but turtles can have trouble navigating through drift fencing, Wood said. They can cross a road, get confused by the drift fencing, and end up being hit by a vehicle, he said.

Not all die.

In a sort of turtle hospital (cardboard boxes in a room at the Wetlands Institute), injured turtles begin the long road to recovery. A veterinarian had wired some cracked shells together. It may take some a year to recover.

"These guys are amazingly resilient," Watters said. "I've seen terrapin with three feet in the grave come back and be completely healthy again."

Dealing with the problem is not so easy. You can't move the roads and you can't teach the turtles.

So the terrapin project this year includes installing silt fencing along certain areas in Sea Isle City. The hope is that the fencing will stop the turtles and make them lay eggs in a grassy dune that does not require crossing the street, Wood said.

Ginny Carlin and Barbara Rice, both of Sea Isle City, were walking in Sea Isle on Wednesday afternoon when they spotted two turtles on a nearby road struggling to climb the curb. At that moment, people in the Turtle Patrol vehicle also spotted the turtles and jumped out of the car.

The 2 p.m. patrol found three carcasses, brought one back for egg harvesting and made four saves.

"It was amazing how that car pulled up," Carlin said from the sidewalk. "It was sure timely."
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