Archive for April, 2013

New Lady Enters Sippican Mating Aggregation

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Seven-Year-Old Female Diamondback Terrapin #35

The Turtle Journal team discovered a sweet 7-year-old female diamondback terrapin who had joined the Sippican Harbor mating aggregation this season.  A 2005 hatchling, this lovel young lady disappeared during the “lost (juvenile) years,” only to resurface today as a fully grown adult who will help restore the severely threatened Buzzards Bay population. 

Female Terrapin #35 Snorkeling in Sippican Harbor

As we paddled kayaks into the Head of Sippican Harbor, we spotted a couple of terrapins snorkeling in the mid afternoon sunshine.  In a few weeks, as water temperatures rise, this mating area will be filled with many male and female turtles looking love.  Today, only a handful of terrapins are active.  Capturing even one will be a challenge.

Sue Wieber Nourse Turtling by Kayak in Sippican Harbor

Netting terrapins from a kayak is a high skill activity in the best of conditions.  Today hardly qualified as best conditions with a stiff southerly breeze whipping up wave action and stirring the water into a frothy mocha latte.  Game for the challenge, Sue Wieber Nourse charged toward the snorkeling turtle with net at the ready.

Sue Wieber Nourse Net Female Terrapin #35

She smoothly guided the kayak into position and swooped up the turtle racing across the bottom of the harbor.  This gorgeous young female proved a new recruit to the adult terrapin population, a young 7-year-old female who had just reached sexual maturity and will be nesting for the first time this year.

Sue Wieber Nourse and Female Diamondback Terrapin #35

Back on shore, we measured and marked her as diamondback terrapin #35.  Her shell measured nearly 7 inches long and 5.6 inches wide.  It’s interesting to contrast her with Cape Cod terrapins that don’t reach maturity until at least one year later and yet are still nearly an inch shorter in length.

Sue Wieber Nourse Release Female Terrapin #35

We welcomed this newest recruit to the adult terrapin population of Buzzards Bay and released her back into Sippican Harbor.  We hope to find her nesting in early June to continue the cycle and to save her offspring to join the Sippican mating aggregation in 2021.

Love Is in the Air at SouthCoast Bog

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Female Followed by Two Male Painteds in Courtship Dance

The sun peekaboo’ed through the clouds late this morning, nudging the thermometer into comfortable 50s and low 60s.  The Turtle Journal team bounced across one-lane backroads to a long abandoned bog on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts to investigate goings-on.

Male Spotted Turtle #1001

We found one female (#53) and one male (#1001) basking on the surface of the shallow channels of the spotted turtle mating aggregation.  There was no ongoing mating activity among the spotted turtles, so we moved on.  Sue Wieber Nourse went to observe the painted turtle mating site and Don Lewis headed off to check the status of salamander and frog egg masses.  Being much swifter than us, Rufus did both by bounding back and forth between us.

Female Painted Turtle Followed by Two Males

At the main flooded bog channel, Sue was surprised to happen upon a hot romantic scene in progress.  Two male painted turtles were engaged in a courtship dance with a large beautful female.  The threesome were so ardently absorbed that they missed Sue’s approach. 

Rufus Examines Romantic Painted Turtles

Sue scooped the trio into a net before they knew what was happening.  Rufus checked closely to ensure the turtles were fine and to find out what they were up to.

Beautiful Female Painted Turtle and Male Suitors

The two male suitors are shallower (in girth) and considerably smaller than the gorgeous mature female whom Don knicknamed Helen in honor of Helen of Troy.  She might not launch a thousand ships, but she could certainly move these males to fervent action.

Rufus Joins the Romantic Turtle Trio

Apparently “feeling the love,” Rufus insisted on joining the threesome.  She lay down next to the turtles and gently rested her snout on Helen’s shell.

 Examining Romantic Painted Turtle Trio (Female Left)

We closely examined the specimens to document their health, as well as morphological differences between genders.  One can readily determine the larger girth of the female painted turtle … to accommodate egg production.  The males, as noted above, are smaller and shallower.  Also, the female tail is thinner and smaller than the much larger and thicker male tails.

Comparing Male and Female Painted Turtle Claws

Beyond girth and tail, hints of gender can be derived from the length of claws (nails).  Male claws (nails) are significantly longer than those of females, as clearly illustrated in the photograph above.  The top turtle is the smaller male, the middle is the larger male, and the bottom is the female.

 Male Painted Turtle with Mauled Tail

The smaller male turtle had a severely mauled tail end that occurred long enough ago for it to have completely healed.  Luckily for him, the shredded tail end stopped just below the anal opening, which in males is well beyond the protection of the carapace.

Rufus Bids the Romantic Trio Good-Bye

As we wrapped up processing and prepared to return the threesome back to their mating aggregation, Rufus insisted on sharing her love one last time.  Well, we suppose that’s simply what turtle dogs do.

Turtle Mating Begins on Massachusetts SouthCoast

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Five-Year-Old Male Painted Turtle

It’s Sunday night, April 21st, and the temperature reads 33 F, one degree above freezing in this seemingly endless transition from winter to spring in the Great White North.  Today, although bathed in sunlight, never broke out of the 40s with a chilled north wind.  Despite these conditions, certain wetland turtle species have decided enough is enough, and they’re proceeding directly to spring mating … with or without the cooperation of Mother Nature.

Two Male Spotted Turtles @ SouthCoast Bog

We visited an abandoned SouthCoast cranberry bog mid-morning.  The sun shined brightly and a small chorus of spring peepers chirped plaintive calls for love.  The past two weeks we found several female spotted turtles in the shallow bog channels where local spotteds travel annually for a mating aggregation.  This morning we found the first two male spotted turtles of the year at the site; a sure sign that the mating part of the annual aggregation was about to commence.

Young Male Painted Turtle Caught in the Act

We returned to the bog in the afternoon.  This time we observed a young male painted turtle and a mature female in mating behavior and we captured the male in flagrante delicto.  The female was discrete enough to disappear under muck and debris at the bottom of the channel.

Five-Year-Old Male Painted Turtle

We don’t often see painted turtles young enough to age like this ~ five-year-old male.  Annual growth lines quickly disappear.  The lines on this specimen very barely discernible.  As for his gender, this turtle’s extremely long claws and thick, long tail clearly marked him as a male painted.  Of course these morphological features merely confirmed the activity we witnessed with his mature female companion.

Endangered Red Bellies Re-Emerge in Wareham

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

 8 Endangered Northern Red-Bellied Cooters in Wareham, MA

On April 19th, Cat Honkonen reported that endangered Northern Red-Bellied Cooters (Pseudemys rubriventris) had re-emerged in her abutting Wareham pond.  She sent this picture of eight (8) mature red bellies basking on a rock in the middle of the pond.  Last year, Cat documented their emergence on March 23rd, nearly a month earlier than this chilly spring.  (See Endangered Red-Bellied Cooters Emerge in Wareham.)

Seven Endangered Northern Red Bellied-Cooters

Cat continues to experience the miracle of elusive turtles.  She is amazed by the magical and mysterical ability of turtles to multiply.  In 2011, Cat counted two mature cooters.  In 2012, she was stunned to see six.  And this year, she photographed eight during their initial emergence from winter slumber. 

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 rare critters and their fragile habitats  for future generations of Bay Staters.

Salt Marsh Awakening: Juvenile Horseshoe Crabs Active on Outer Cape Cod

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Tiny, Silver-Dollar Sized Juvenile Horseshoe Crab

It isn’t springtime for the Turtle Journal team until juvenile horseshoe crabs emerge from winter slumber from underneath the soft, muddy bottoms of salt marsh channels.  Like everything else this year, that emergence seems to have been delayed nearly a month by a chilly March and April.  We first discovered active horseshoe crabs on April 18th in South Wellfleet on Outer Cape Cod.  Last year we recorded a mid-March emergence of juvenile horseshoe crabs; see Mid-March Emergence of Juvenile Horseshoe Crabs, which also provides a detailed morphological examination of these critters.

Juvenile Horseshoe Crab Tracks in Marsh Channel

Juvenile horseshoe crabs spend their first couple of years in protected salt marsh channels before venturing outside this nursery habitat.  As we peeked into marsh creeks of South Wellfleet last Thursday, we saw a large number of juvenile horseshoe crab tracks carved into the soft bottom.  If you solve the maze and figure out where the critter is heading, you can find the juvenile horseshoe crab burrowed at the end of the line; that is, in theory.  In practice, though …. well, it simply takes a lot of practice, so to speak, to actually find these elusive critters.  Unlike adults, juvenile shells are light colored in tones that blend perfectly with marsh channel bottoms.

Two Juvenile Horseshoe Crabs

We found a number of horseshoe crabs and selected these two perfect juveniles to examine more closely.  The tiny horseshoe crab on the right is about the size of a silver dollar.  The one on the left is about the size of a hockey puck.  The horseshoe crab’s exoskeleton (shell) does not expand.  To grow, horseshoe crabs must molt, as many as five times in the first year, three in the 2nd, two in the third and once a year thereafter until maturity is achieved after nearly a decade.

Two Juvenile Horseshoe Crabs

In the set-up photograph above, the size differential between the two juveniles horseshoe crabs is more easily discernible.

Spring Awakening of  Juvenile Horseshoe Crabs

Before releasing these critters back into the salt marsh, we took a few moments to observe their movements and behavior.

Tiny Juvenile Horseshoe Crab

The tiny juvenile horseshoe crab was quite small, about the size of a Liberty silver dollar.  All of its point and edges where sharp and fresh, as though the critter had freshly molted.

Ventral (Bottom) Side of Tiny Juvenile Horseshoe Crab

The ventral (bottom) view of this tiny horseshoe crab clearly shows the five pairs of walking legs, the forward feeding pincers (Chelicerae), and the rear book gills.   The telson (tail spine) has slipped between Don’s fingers.