Archive for March, 2012

Sue Wieber Nourse Plunges to Bottom of Atlantic Ocean

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Researcher Sue Wieber Nourse Exits Nekton Beta

Turtle Journal co-founder Sue Wieber Nourse is a noted adventurer, researcher, scientist, author and educator.  We recently rediscovered documentary photographs of Sue’s exploits as a young scientist in Woods Hole when she became one of the first women to plunge to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean in the submersible Nekton Beta.  How does a young USGS biologist get that privilege?  Well, when the research vessel reached its ocean target in the midst of a North Atlantic storm, and when all the seasoned scientists turned thumbs down on what they perceived as a recklessly dangerous dive, who you gonna call?  That’s right:  the newly minted USGS scientist with adventurous attitude and indominable spirit!

Submersible Nekton Beta

Yep.  She dove to the bottom of the Atlantic in this classic, early model research submersible pictured in the 1973 NOAA photograph above.  Her mission was to document the benthic habitat off Georges Bank, which she did with an innovative photographic system.  The Nekton Beta dives supplemented her photography through direct observation.  According to “Manned Submersibles” by R. Frank Busby, the Nekton Beta measured 15.5 feet long, 5 feet wide and 6 feet high.  It weighed 2.35 tons with a hatch diameter of 18 inches and maximum life support of 48-man hours.  It had a two-person crew of pilot and observer, a payload of 450 pounds, and a cruise speed of 1.5 knots for 3.5 hours or maximum speed of 2.5 knots for 1 hour.  Built by General Oceanographics, the Nekton Beta sported 17 acrylic plastic viewports with 6.5 inch diameter and 1.25 inches thickness.

First Basking Diamondback Terrapin of 2012

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

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Female Diamondback Terrapin Basking in Sippican Harbor

Turtle Journal’s Sue Wieber Nourse spotted the first diamondback terrapins basking in Sippican Harbor off Buzzards Bay on the South Coast of Massachusetts at low tide on Thursday afternoon, March 22nd.  An early spring emergence for diamondback terrapins in the Great White North.

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First 2012 Basking Terrapin in Sippican Harbor

On Friday, Sue paddled her kayak back to Sippican Harbor.  She discovered a half dozen active terrapins, including a male and female pair.  Amazing; the water is still cool to the touch, these turtles have just woken from six months of slumber, their biological systems are still trying to adjust, yet IT’S SPRINGTIME!  And in spring, as Alfred Lord Tennison tried to teach us, a young turtle’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Endangered Red-Bellied Cooters Emerge in Wareham

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

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Northern Red Bellied-Cooters Basking in Wareham, MA

Turtle Journal’s colleague Cat Honkonen found six endangered red bellied-cooters basking on rocks in a Wareham pond on Friday, March 23rd.  She snapped this photograph of four cooters enjoying the warm sunshine after emerging from winter slumber.  Northern Red Bellied-Cooters (Pseudemys rubriventris) are federally protected as threatened and are listed in Massachusetts as an endangered species by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program.

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Closeup of Basking Northern Red-Bellied Cooters

Cat is experiencing the “miracle” of elusive turtles.  She notes, “Somehow they managed to multiply over the winter.  I saw at least six (6) today.  How could they do that?  I know I only saw two (2) last year.”   Thanks to citizen scientists like Cat who monitor endangered species in Massachusetts, the knowledge they provide about locations, population size and activies ensures that we can protect these critters for future generations of Bay Staters.

Mid-March Emergence of Juvenile Horseshoe Crabs

Monday, March 19th, 2012

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Juvenile Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

March madness means something entirely different to the Turtle Journal team.  Yes, it’s a culmination of a long winter of preparation.  Yes, we must keep our eyes on the ball.  And, yes; there’s an awful lot of bouncing around.  Not on basketball courts, mind you.  But at every natural habitat from wetlands to ocean.  This glorious afternoon, with full sunshine, gentle southerly breeze and mid-50s temperature, Turtle Journal ventured to the rich salt marshes of South Wellfleet to check on the emergence of juvenile horseshoe crabs; another important signpost on the road to spring.

Capture of Juvenile Horseshoe Crab

We examined the shallow marsh channels off Blackfish Creek where we usually find the emergence of the first juvenile horseshoe crabs of the year.  We had been here a week ago with no sign of activity; not even tiny fish swimming in the channels and playing hide & seek among the marsh reeds.  Yet, today we found several tracks of juvenile horseshoe crabs in the oozy bottom.  Then, almost impossible to see through the murk, a blurry mud trail betrayed the camouflaged presence of a juvenile specimen, and Don Lewis swept into action with his sampling net.

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Massing Juvenile Horseshoe Crab

This youngster tipped the scales at 26 grams with tail (telson) pointed skyward like an exclamation point! 

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Examination of Juvenile Horseshoe Crab

The anterior carapace (prosoma) measured 6.1 centimeters maximum width and 4.2 centimeter long.  The posterior (abdominal region or opisthosoma) measured 3.1 centimeters length from hindge to notch and 4.2 centimeters wide.  The spiny tail (telson) measured 4.8 centimeters.

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Juvenile Horseshoe Crab Compound Eye

Don especially delighted in the clear view of the critter’s compound eyes as illustrated in the photograph above.

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Juvenile Horseshoe Crab Ventral View

This ventral view reinforces the impression that folks have that horseshoe crabs, whether juveniles or adults, are an ancient creature; a living fossil.  When they molt, and horseshoe crabs like lobsters must molt frequently to grow, the shell splits at the leading ventral edge of the anterior carapace (prosoma), so that the animal can wiggle to freedom, then create and harden a new, larger shell.  When you find horseshoe crab shells along the beach, check for this slit to determine whether you have discovered an abandoned shell of a freshly molted individual.

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Rusty Colored Substance on Book Gills

On today’s specimen, we notice a rusty coloration on and immediately behind the book gills.


Release of Juvenile Horseshoe Crab

While finding the first juvenile horseshoe crab of the year is a cherished experience in our rite of spring, it is only exceeded by the joy of releasing that specimen back into the wild once it has yielded a little scientific data.  Today’s juvenile slid as gracefully as a horseshoe crab can into the marsh channel and floated down to the bottom.  After a minute or so of orientation, it wobbled forward to find the perfect spot under the marsh rim to burrow down for some peace and quiet.  Humans are, after all, strange critters that can be taken only in small doses.

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Juvenile Horseshoe Crab Ventral View

Turtle Journal confesses to finding horseshoe crabs irresistible.  During mating season, which should commence in another month or so, our wading boots get “checked out” by amorous males that get fooled by the enticing dark color and lovely rounded edges.  We’re facinated by intricate artistic designs carved on beaches by females and males locked in embrace after depositing eggs at high tide.  And there’s nothing so noble, yet comical as a juvenile horseshoe crab that stomps across your palm marching towards freedom.  Just for the record, these living fossils are darn good for the tidal ecosystem where they’re constantly tilling and aerating soil with ten walking legs and two feeding pincers.  Horseshoe crabs eggs provide the most nutrious food for migrating shorebirds, and their blue blood presents a modern medical and scientific miracle for disease detection, for thwarting bioterrorism and even for facilitating planetary exploration probes.  No wonder Turtle Journal delights in marking each spring with the arrival of the next generation of horseshoe crabs!

Wood Frogs Haunt Spooky Swamp

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

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Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica)

Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) are typically the first amphibians Turtle Journal encounters each March.  No difference this year.  Last week, when we checked for signs of spring emergence in wetlands surrounding the abandoned Goldwitz cranberry bog in Marion,  the only peep we heard was a single wood frog.  Deep in the swamp, a plaintive, unanswered call echoed through the brush.

Wood Frogs Haunt Spooky Swamp

Today, as we revisited the same area, a chorus of wood frogs greeted our arrival.  Water levels in the wetlands were extremely low, and frogs had moved their mating aggregation out of the abandoned bog and deeper into the swamp.  Low gray clouds blanketed the day.   With only their calls as guide, Turtle Journal zigzagged through thickets and woodlands until we reached one very, very spooky hollow that seemed straight out of a Hollywood set for the scariest horror film ever made … or perhaps a darker, even grimmer remake of Deliverance.

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Wood Frog Egg Mass in Abandoned Goldwitz Bog

After locating the site of the aggregation, Turtle Journal searched nearby bog channels until we discovered freshly deposited wood frog egg masses.

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Spring Peeper (Pseudoacris crucifer)

As we left the bog this afternoon, a single, solitary peeper called out; a sure sign that spring is in the air.