Turtle Hatching Season Begins on SouthCoast

First SouthCoast Diamondback Terrapin Hatchling of 2013

After a long, hot summer baking under steamy sands of a SouthCoast barrier beach, the first diamondback terrapin hatchling of 2013 emerged Monday afternoon. Piercing its eggshell with a razor sharp egg tooth at the tip of its beak, this 1/4 ounce, inch-long dynamo tunneled to the surface. In glaring sunlight, the tiny turtle scrambled across dunes, seekiing safety in the salt marsh where it will spend the first three years of its life, hiding from predators while it reaches hockey puck size and its shell hardens from potato chip crunchy to rock solid.

Ripening Beach Plums Presage Turtle Hatching Season

Back in springtime, every turtle’s thoughts turned to love and securing the next generation of shelled critters. In late May and early June, female terrapins swam ashore from Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay to revisit their natal nesting spots with near perfect site fidelity. Similarly, snapping turtles and painted turtles and spotted turtles and rare red-bellied cooters left their ponds and creeks and wetlands to lay nests. Box turtles came out of the woodlands to find sun-soaked spots in gardens and driveways and neighborhood lawns to deposit their clutch of eggs. And while we humans savored summer sunshine as we surfed and fished and grilled and campfired and golfed and sailed, those few turtle nests that had eluded spring predators cradled eggs that incubated a few inches under our toes in the searing heat. (Not only does heat incubate eggs, but nest temperature also determines the gender of the hatchlings with warmer temps yielding females and cooler producing males.) Then, when beach plums begin to ripen along the East Coast, the first hatchlings of the year start to emerge.

Terrapin Hatchling Hides in Clump of Beach Grass

This last week with beach plums beginning to change hue from yellow and red to a deep, inviting blue, Turtle Journal’s Don Lewis and Sue Wieber Nourse have been patrolling coastal nesting sites. Monday afternoon they discovered the first definitive tracks of an emerged hatchling in the noon-day sands of a barrier beach in Marion. They followed the tracks until they disappeared and then began searching nearby until they discovered an elusive diamondback terrapin hatchling “hiding in plain sight,” perfectly blending into the vegetative debris at the base of a beach grass clump. To the untrained eye, this tiny baby turtle seemed like just another wind-blown leaf.

Quarter Sized Diamondback Terrapin Hatchling

About the size of a U.S. quarter, tiny terrapin hatchlings are extremely vulnerable to a host of predators. The most dangerous moments of their lives comprise the trek from nest to safety in the nearest salt marsh where they hide for their first three years of greatest vulnerability. As many as 90% of turtle nests are eaten by predators immediately after being laid or just as they to begin to hatch. Emerged hatchlings face equally improbable odds of survival with estimates of only 1-in-a-thousand to 1-in-250 likely to reach adulthood. And with human intrusion into their nesting, nursery, mating and foraging habitats, the odds for turtle survival remain bleak … without a conservation assist.

Teaspoon Sized Diamondback Terrapin Hatchling

Once the greatest threat to diamondback terrapins was a haute cuisine palate with thousands of barrels of turtles shipped to metropolitan restaurants in the last century. While largely protected today, terrapins are still being driven toward extinction in many communities by coastal development. Development has accelerated loss of shoreside nesting habitat and nursery salt marshes. Human activity has intruded into formerly isolated mating aggregations. Once bountiful foraging areas have been depleted and polluted. Unlike their ocean-going sea turtle cousins, terrapins are non-migratory and must live in shallow coastal waters within shouting distance of humans; yet, so shy and elusive, terrapins are rarely seen. Without a conservation strategy to balance the scales, terrapins can easily and quickly and even unknowingly be extirpated from one estuary after another. In Massachusetts, they are listed as threatened; in Rhode Island, they are an endangered species.

First 2013 SouthCoast Diamondback Terrapin Hatchling

In the arduous trek from nest to salt marsh, many hatchlings lose their lives. Most succumb to predators; others to fatigue and dehydration. It’s a long, hard scramble to reach safety and camouflage of the marsh grasses. The little critter discovered Monday afternoon already showed signs of exhaustion and dehydration from the midday sun and steamy dune sand. Lewis and Wieber Nourse decided to rest and rehydrate the terrapin baby before releasing it back into its natal salt marsh. Rehydration and a head-start in reaching the safety of the marsh greatly increase its odds of survival.

Terrapin (Left), Box (Middle), Snapper (Top) and Spotted (Bottom Right)

From now until October frost forms on pumpkins, turtle hatchlings will be emerging in Massachusetts; diamondback terrapins on the coastline, box turtles in backyards, snappers around any pond or creek, spotted turtles near wetlands and bogs, and red-bellied cooters at Plymouth County lakes. During the next ten weeks, look down at the unnoticed world around your feet. Watch the lawn as you’re mowing. Check the driveway as you move the car. If you find a hatchling and you’d like advice on how to tilt the scales in favor of its survival, call the Turtle Journal team at 508-274-5108. Because of the unique reproductive strategy of turtles, saving just a few extra hatchlings each year can have a huge impact on the survival of these charismatic wild creatures for future generations. Many adventurer, outdoor enthusiast, scientist, teacher, oceanologist and nature lover has been inspired by an early life, surprise encounter with a hard-shelled critter in backyard or beach, pond or ocean, that sparked a lifetime of exploration and discovery. You can help create tomorrow’s explorers by saving today’s world one tiny turtle at a time.

Rufus the Turtle Dog Greets First 2013 Terrapin Hatchling

Rufus bade farewell to the tiny hatchling, wishing it godspeed as it hides from predators for the next three years in a nursery salt marsh.

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