Archive for November, 2008

The Large and the Small of It (Whelks)

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Knobbed Whelk Captures Large Quahog

The weather has been “overcast November” heading into “icy December” in the Great White North.  While days have been in the low 40s, nights in the mid 20s, winds have been too feeble and too southerly to bring any cold-stunned turtles onto the beach.  Those animals that still float about in hypothermic stupor, tossed this way and that by wind and tide, will have to wait until the next strong storm system hits the Cape before they come ashore for rescue.  In the mean time, we patrol beaches for the odd turtle that might have stumbled onto shore, and we sweep the wrack line for interesting discoveries.  So, forgive us as we take a brief trip backwards in the Turtle Journal “Time Machine” to the warmth of summer, prompted by whelk egg casings we have found recently in Wellfleet Bay.

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Knobbed Whelk (Busycon carica) in Sippican Harbor

We ran across a mature knobbed whelk (Busycon carica) while kayaking in Sippican Harbor for terrapins during the summer.  This animal had hunted down a large quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) and held it firmly in the grasp of its powerful foot.  The whelk was fully engaged in splitting open the bivalve for a delicious dinner.  As we examined and documented this snail, it soon became disturbed by our intrusion and dropped its prey to reveal its complete visceral anatomy.

Channeled Whelk (Busycotupus canaliculatus)

The Turtle Journal team has encountered two large whelk species around Cape Cod:  knobbed whelks (Busycon carica) and channeled whelks (Busycotupus canaliculatus).   These large (5 to 12 inches) predatory sea snails are considered “right-handed” because when held with the spire up and siphonal canal down, the aperture is on the right (dextral) side.  [NOTE:  The lightning whelk (Busycon perversum, found in the south and the Gulf of Mexico) as its name implies is sinistral with the aperture on the left side.]  Knobbed whelks have tubercles or spines along the shoulder.  Channeled whelks are slightly smaller than knobbed whelks and have smooth shells with deep square channels that are continuous on all whorls.


Knobbed Whelk (Busycon carica)

The apperture contains the whelk’s viserca covered by an operculum (horny door) that protects these snails from predators and desiccation.  Major identifiable body parts include the foot (closest to the operculum), two chemosensory tentacles, two light sensitive eyes behind the tentacles, a proboscis between the tentacles with a mouth at the end, and a siphon.

Knobbed Whelk Re-Engages with Quahog Prey

Whelks reside in intertidal and subtidal zones along sandy and muddy bottoms.  Clam and oyster reefs can be important habitats as these are prey for whelks.  These snails migrate from shallow waters in the spring and summer to deeper waters in the winter.  They will bury into the sand for protection during storms.  A whelk will wedge the edge of its shell between the two shells of a bivalve.  Then, when the two shells are forced ajar, the whelk inserts its proboscis and radulla (rasping tongue) into the soft body of the bivalve.

Live Horseshoe Crabs (Left) to Bait Whelk Traps (Right) in Buzzards Bay

The most serious predators are humans who harvest whelks as a commercial fishery even here in Massachusetts.  Beyond removing these graceful, giant gastropods from the seascape, the second tragedy of the whelk fishery is the bait of choice that is used to attract whelks into traps:  chopped and quartered horseshoe crabs, live or frozen.  [Note:  We will be posting an article on the whelk fishery after the sea turtle rescue season.]  Europeans are heavy consumers of whelk, which is sometimes sold as “conch” and is also marketed as scungilli for Italians.


And now for something really different, as Monty Python might say.  The critter Don mentioned in the video clip that the Turtle Journal team had encountered in great numbers on the Reefs beach in Southampton, Bermuda is the chiton.  The photograph above shows the chiton we found on the knobbed whelk with Sue’s fingernail for size comparison.  According to Wikipedia, chitons are primitive marine mollusks with somewhere between 900 and 1000 existing species and are sometimes called sea cradles or coat-of-mail shells.  The chiton shell consists of eight separate imbricated (overlapping) plates.

Channeled Whelk Casings: Some Opened, Some Plugged

Whelk mating occurs in spring and fall.  They are thought to be protandric hermaphrodites, which means that they function first as males when young and smaller, and then whelks change to females as they grow larger and age.  So, a fishery that targets larger animals, whether through regulation or fancy, will preferentially eliminate productive females from the ecosystem. 

Females produce egg capsules or casings attached to a “string.”  A string might hold 100 to 120 capsules, with each case containing as many as 35 eggs.  One end of the string is secured to the bottom of the bay and eggs develop into very tiny whelks within the casings.  After hatching, small juvenile snails emerge through a predesigned exit hole (see photograph above).  Most egg casings that wash up on the beach, dredged from the bay floor by nature or man, are empty because the tiny juvenile snails have successfully emerged.


 Peterson Field Guides “Atlantic Seahshore” – Kenneth L. Gosner

The Peterson Field Guide for Atlantic Seashore offers an excellent diagram of the difference between channeled and knobbed whelk casings.  Within our area of the coast, the overwhelming number of casings we find are channeled whelks … such as the one that came from Burton Baker Beach which we will examine in detail below. 

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Examining Channeled Whelk Plugged Casing

Most casings that we find on Cape beaches have already hatched; many of the capsules have opened and presumably the tiny whelks that had developed from the eggs inside the casings have already emerged.  The chain we found at Burton Baker Beach was different.  It contained mostly plugged cases and we selected one of these plugged casings that still felt full of fluid for closer examination.  With a small scissors we snipped the edge along the plugged emergence hole, revealing tiny developing whelk shells inside.

Tiny Baby Channeled Whelks

Little whelks were still suspended in gooey fluid and seemed to be in the process of developing their exterior shells.  Since most of the casings in this string were still plugged and the whelks had not yet begun to emerge, we assessed that the tiny whelks had not yet developed sufficently to survive independently.

Channeled Whelk Babies under Microscope

Under a microscope at low magnification, you can detect individual shell development.  The one furthest left clearly shows the developing siphon canal at the top.

Baby Channeled Whelk for Size Comparison

The casing pictured above came from a channeled whelk egg chain that the Turtle Journal team collected at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet Bay about four weeks ago.  While still suspended in mucus-like fluid, the tiny whelks were further along in their development with more mature shell formation.  All other casings in this string were empty and presumably tiny whelks had already emerged.  We include this photograph to give you a better sense of the size of the babies as they begin to emerge as viewed between Don’s index finger (top) and thumb, and to contrast these baby whelks on the cusp of emergence with the ones from Burton Baker Beach that were still developing.

Auction Bidders Were Heroes in Turtle Rescues

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Friday November 28, 2008 Cape Cod Online | Classifieds | Contact Us | Subscriber Tools | Mobile News | E-mail Newsletters

Your staff captured the urgency, the intensity and the exhilaration of sea turtle rescues on Cape Cod (“Cold-stunned turtles wash up by the dozens,” Nov. 25).

Thanks to these extraordinary efforts, more than 1,000 critically endangered sea turtles have been recovered from stormy bayside beaches and given a second chance to live. Because they have already cleared most lethal challenges to survival as eggs and hatchlings, saving these juvenile turtles to return them to the wild pays huge conservation dividends. Your article will result in increased awareness that will save even more endangered sea turtles this year.

But after exciting beach rescues comes the real heavy lifting: emergency medical care and long-term rehab. That’s why Kerry and Russ Barton are such real heroes in this story. Their winning auction bid at the NMLC’s Mermaid Ball for an escorted turtle patrol went toward building a critically needed marine animal hospital for Cape Cod, a recognized global stranding hot spot. Thanks to the Bartons and supporters like them, that hospital will open its doors this coming year in Buzzards Bay, creating a local “life raft” for stranded and injured sea creatures.

Don Lewis


National Marine Life Center

Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles Create National and Regional Headlines

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

A young Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle is found alive in Brewster (USA TODAY)

Photo by Sue Wieber Nourse (Turtle Journal)

The recovery of critically endangered sea turtles on Cape Cod, spurred by plunging temperatures and fierce gale force winds, made national headlines this morning, November 26th, in USA Today.  The story, with Sue Wieber Nourse’s picture above of a tiny live Kemp’s ridley from Linnell Landing in Brewster, appeared on Page Three of the national print edition and in the USA Today on-line newspaper.  The article was researched and written by Emily Bazar and the photo was selected by Robin Smith.  The story was titled “Endangered sea turtles killed by cold snap” and can be read by clicking on the title or on the photograph above.  We would have preferred, of course, “Endangered sea turtles rescued during cold snap,” but we don’t get to write the headlines.  We do get to thank and congratulate Ms. Bazar and Ms. Smith for helping us raise awareness … which in turn saves lives.

The Turtle Journal story about this particular Kemp’s ridley rescue ran as Tiny Kemp’s Ridley Rescued in Freezing Conditions.

Russell and Kerry Barton Find Loggerhead on Beach Patrol

The Bartons became regional celebrities as they appeared on the front page of the Cape Cod Times on Tuesday, November 25th.  The story by Cape Cod Times reporter Patrick Cassidy and photographer Merrily Lunsford highlighted the Bartons in telling the tale of cold-stunned sea turtle strandings in their report, “Dozens of cold-stunned turtles wash up.”  It can be read by clicking on the title or on the photograph above.  Again, their great writing and compelling pictures will increase awareness in the region and if past is prologue, the article will lead to more endangered sea turtles being saved.  Thanks to Mr. Cassidy and Ms. Lunsford, and of course to Russell and Kerry.

The Turtle Journal story about this rescue patrol ran as Turtle World Turned Upside Down.

Turtle World Turned Upside Down

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Couple Find 60-Pound Loggerhead on Icy Beach

Earth’s axis tilted and the turtle world turned upside down this weekend.  There’s no other explanation for the bizarre events that created reptile bedlam on Cape Cod.  The evidence?  Oxymoronic “frozen tropical” sea turtles (greens, Kemp’s ridleys and loggerheads) wash ashore through icy slush and freezing sea water.  A goofy two-year-old diamondback terrapin juvenile waltzes across Bridge Road in Eastham during the teeth of a snowy gale.  And a fresh water painted turtle turns up frozen solid at high tide on a Cape Cod Bay beach in Truro!  Sounds a bit like a Marx Brothers movie, Night at the Ocean (sic).

Brutal Wintry Conditions for Sea Turtle Patrols

Let’s begin at the beginning.  There’s nothing so crazy as patrolling for tropical and semi-tropical sea turtles in a wintry wonderland.  Saturday brought two inches of snow, icy roads and frozen beaches to the Outer Cape.  Conditions for Saturday night’s sea turtle patrols proved the worst ever recorded by rescuers with wind chills tumbling below zero.  Sea water froze and several feet of icy sludge formed between beach and breakers.  Waves flash froze on the shoreline before they could retreat into the sea.  Sand pebbles became near lethal projectiles propelled in our faces by gale force winds.

Frozen Wave with Cold-Stunned Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

Yet, even in these conditions, turtles were recovered from the beach and some resilient ridleys came back from the brink.  Bob Prescott, director of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and leader of the sea turtle rescue team, snatched a smallish Kemp’s ridley from the beach with its flippers frozen into place.  “No hope for this one,” thought Bob as he returned home to get some rest and warmth.  When he rose the next morning, Bob checked the ridley and noted that its frozen flippers had relaxed, but with no sign of life, the assumption was that it had simply come out of rigor mortis.  Bob breakfasted and geared up for the frigid morning ahead.  As he gazed down at the turtle one last time, it winked back at him.  Alive!  (See video of this Kemp’s ridley below in the Sanctuary triage center as it prepares to go to Boston for medical treatment.)

Squid Flash Frozen by Wintry Storm

How cold was it Saturday night?  Bob found a live squid that had been tossed onto the frozen beach by gale-force winds and towering breakers.  Yet, by the time he reached his vehicle the animal had flash frozen.  You can imagine the effect of those conditions on raw human skin when you remove your gloves to check a cold-stunned animal … or to take pictures for Turtle Journal.  (ASIDE:  Don still can’t feel anything on the tips of his thumbs and forefingers.)

60-Pound Cold-Stunned Loggerhead Washes Ashore

Morning high tide came at 8 am.  Kerry and Russell, a couple from New Hampshire who are supporters of the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, joined the Turtle Journal team for a sea turtle patrol of Brewster beaches from Breakwater in the west through Point of Rocks to Windslow Landing in the east.  When you’re dressed for ski slopes or for scaling Mount Denali (McKinley) in Alaska, it’s really hard to think that you’re going out to search for tropical sea turtles.  Nevertheless, about three quarters of a mile into the walk we saw a large object washing onto shore in the frigid surf.

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Kerry & Russell Recover Loggerhead from Point of Rocks

A 60-pound loggerhead, the largest sea turtle so far in this stranding season, had beached at the Point of Rocks landing in Brewster.  The location was very lucky for us, because if you haven’t had the opportunity to carry 60 pounds of awkward, dead-weight loggerhead a mile down a frozen beach, you haven’t lived.  We would protect the turtle from any additional hypothermia and return with a vehicle to the landing to bring it to the triage center in Wellfleet.

Loggerhead Covered with Dry Seaweed above High Tide Line

We followed sea turtle rescue procedures to a tee.  We moved the loggerhead above the high water line, so that it wouldn’t get washed back out to sea.  We actually placed it in the lee of a sand dune to block the blistering wind.  We scoured the beach for dry seaweed and covered the turtle to prevent additional hypothermia now that it was out of the water.  We would have marked the spot with a gaudy object for a recovery team to retrieve if we weren’t coming back ourselves in a few minutes to load it into the Element for transport to the Sanctuary.

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Kerry & Russell Find Cold-Stunned 6-Pound Kemp’s Ridley

But before we could get back to the warmth of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, we had to finish our patrol.  We still had about half a mile to go to reach our pre-positioned car at Winslow Landing.  (You may recall from Tiny Kemp’s Ridley Rescued in Freezing Conditions that we try to plan these patrols so that we are always walking with out back to the wind.  It helps to prevent two-legged cold-stunned mammal strandings!)  Midway between Point of Rocks and Winslow, Russell and Kerry spotted a 6-pound Kemp’s ridley sea turtle lying on the beach just above a flash-frozen wave that never made it back into the sea.  This ridley was in the same condition as Bob Prescott’s turtle from the night before; so, we always remain hopeful.

Kerry Examines Ridleys and Loggerhead in Triage Center

Back at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, we brought our turtles into the wet lab which serves as a triage center during stranding season.  Sea turtles are dry-docked in a cool room while they are processed and examined.  No turtle is considered beyond recovering until it has had ample opportunity … at least 24 hours … to show signs of life.  Too many times people have given up these animals as dead when they later snapped back to life.  As you may hear in the accompanying videos, these cold-stunned turtles have shut down to protect themselves with ever so slight heart rates at one to five beats a minute.

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Triage Center at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

The Kemp’s ridley sea turtles from Saturday night, including Bob’s “miracle” turtle, were being boxed and prepared for the long drive from the Outer Cape to the New England Aquarium in Boston.  Volunteers from New Hampshire had trekked down to Wellfleet to transport this precious cargo to emergency medical care and the start of rehabilitation.  These volunteers had also experienced the adventure of sea turtle patrols as they had walked Ryder Beach in Truro in Saturday night’s impossible conditions.

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Two-Year-Old Terrapin Juvenile Strolling in the Storm

Turning an unusual situation into the bizarre, we noticed a two-year-old diamondback terrapin juvenile in the wet lab.  What?  The story goes that a resident had spotted this wayward turtle crossing Bridge Road in Eastham during the weekend’s wintry gale.  There are nursery salt marshes on both sides of Bridge Road and perhaps this little critter had become unearthed from its hibernaculum by blustery conditions.  Still, the sight of a cold-blooded terrapin strolling down an ice and snow covered road in late November ranks up near the top of the Turtle Journal “Believe it or Not” Listing.

But it’s not at the top of the list, not even for this weekend’s strange string of events.

Frozen Painted Turtle Found on Truro Beach

Okay, here’s the really weird story of the day.  Yes, Virginia, that is a fresh water painted turtle in the picture above and perhaps that gives away the punchline.  The sanctuary received a call that a cold-stunned sea turtle had washed ashore at Corn Hill Beach in Truro.  Emily, the sanctuary’s turtle intern, sped to the scene and diligently searched and re-searched and searched again the beach area where the sea turtle had been reported.  She looked for a Kemp’s ridley or a loggerhead or a high pile of seaweed under which a turtle had been buried.  No luck.  Then, as frustration mounted, she spotted a small shell above the wrack line: a frozen painted turtle.  We have NO IDEA what a fresh water turtle was doing on a salt water beach with no ponds or lakes or streams or creeks within hollering range. 

Is it alive?  We don’t make snap judgments about our reptilian friends.  This painted turtle holds a privileged place in the wet lab triage center … just like the 60-pound loggerhead and the 6-pound Kemp’s ridley, waiting to tell us, in its own good time, whether or not it lies on this side of the live line.

Finally, the Turtle Journal team thanks Kerry & Russell and all supporters of the National Marine Life Center whose generous contributions have made a dream into a reality as the NMLC’s new marine animal hospital opens in Buzzards Bay next summer. 

CSI Icebox

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008

Don Lewis (center), Krill Carson (right) and Her Assistant

Like many research teams, Turtle Journal admits to a certain addiction to CSI-like dramas.  Turtle Journal takes special pleasure in the sun, warmth and Caribbean color of CSI Miami … especially its heat as winter grips the Great White North.  The original CSI in Las Vegas ranks first in science and second in warmth, but still catches our attention.  The New York rendition can be a bit too close to home, not in its urban setting, but with its top coats and snow.  But nothing in that collection of shows or their look-alikes could prepare us for Friday’s ocean sunfish examination in sub-20 degree temperatures with a north-northwest wind blasting in our faces directly from the Arctic tundra.  Conditions were brutal and beyond description.  For instance, we wore three layers of gloves: surgical gloves, woolen gloves and thick work gloves.  Still, when we took five minute “thaw breaks” in the car between cuts, our fingers sizzled in frozen pain as though holding a block of dry ice in the plam of a bare hand with knuckles lying on a blazing griddle.

Male Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) @ Boathouse Beach

As reported in yesterday’s post (Another Ocean Sunfish Washes Ashore on Cape Cod), this animal had been bouncing around the bay for a while as illustrated by the breakdown in its skin.  Inside, the internal organs had largely deteriorated beyond useful data other than anatomical organization.  We did determine the gender of this ocean sunfish: male.  The one at Linnell Landing was female; so, we now have photo-documentation of both genders.  We hope to post much of this material to a special location on Turtle Journal for access by students and scientists to aid future naturalists in studying marine species, but with enough warning about the nature of these images, so that no one will be offended.

Measures 6 Feet 1.5 Inches Snout to Caudil Fin

For the record, this male measured 6 feet 1.5 inches curved measurement from caudal fin to snout and 7 feet 4 inches from tip of anal fin to tip of dorsal fin.  The female on Linnell Landing measured measured 6 feet 8 inches (curved surface) from tip of snout to trailing edge of caudal fin.  It measured 7 feet 5 inches from the tip of the dorsal (top) fin to the tip of the anal (bottom) fin.  For these two samples, the ratio of length to height was 83.5% for the male and 89.9% for the female.

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Clinical Sample of Anatomical Examination

One objective of these necropsies is to construct a model of ocean sunfish anatomy which requires detailed and precise measurements and documentation.  While we won’t show any too candid images in these posts, the video clip above gives an example of the type of documentation we are attempting to achieve.

Strange Bedfellows Enjoy Wintry Shirttail Point

Not everyone was put off by yesterday’s cold.  A couple of local blubbery critters settled into the leeward shadow of Shirttail Point to bask on the sandy beach formed at low tide.  Since the tide was rising, they would squirm and wiggle about every couple of minutes to gain a little higher ground for a few more minutes of basking pleasure.

Life’s a Beach

When we watched this scene play out through the lens, we thought of the old Sesame Street bit about “one of these things doesn’t look like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong.”  But it didn’t seem to matter much to the participants.  Everyone was welcome to join the beach party.

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What’s Wrong with Sunbathing in a Winter Coat?

Spend two minutes savoring life as a Wellfleet seal!

At this time of year, if something isn’t nailed down tight, then it is flotsam.  Beaches become littered with living, dead and material debris thrown about like toothpicks in blistering winds and roaring seas.  It’s a good time to be a researcher on Cape Cod, if only the thermostat could be set about 50 degrees higher.  Sigh.