Wellfleet Terrapin Grande Dame Looking Great at 54 Years Old!


Wellfleet’s Terrapin Grande Dame (#86)

May 16th proved a perfect terrapin day in Wellfleet Bay.  Skies were clear, the breeze was gentle from the southwest, and the tide was low.  Diamondback terrapins, recently emerged from winter slumber, were swimming through the shallows of the tidal flats looking for love.  The Turtle Journal team visited the cove between the south shore of Lieutenant Island and the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in waders to conduct a spring population census.


Diamondback Terrapins Released in Lieutenant Island Creek

In ten to fifteen minutes of sampling, we netted 28 terrapins, 17 males and 11 females.  Eight of these turtles were recaptures and 20 were seen for the first time.  The 17 males proved the largest number of male terrapins from Wellfleet Bay that have been captured in a single event.


 Healed Damaged Carapace of Terrapin #86

Back to female terrapin #86, we scooped her up in water about three inches deep where she was being pursued by a young male about 8 years old.  They both were netted together and quickly released after processing to resume their amorous intentions.  Looking at her carapace above, you can see where she still shows the effects of a major trauma sustained in the early 1980s when her shell was cracked in an encounter with a vehicle.  She’s extremely fortunate to have survived that event and to have avoided another such incident during her twice yearly nesting runs on Lieutenant Island in mid June and early July. 


Don Lewis Shows #86’s Male Companion to Visitors

We are especially fond of the Grande Dame of Wellfleet’s terrapins because she was captured on June 20th, 1980 as she made a nesting run on Lieutenant Island’s Turtle Point at the very beginning of our Outer Cape terrapin study which began 29 years ago.  Back then she was already so mature that her annual growth lines had vanished into history.  But many years later when we reconstructed the growth chart of terrapins in Wellfleet Bay, we were able to discern that #86 had been more than 25 years old at her first meeting with researchers in 1980.  We have listed her birth year as 1955, even though it is highly probable that she was born closer to 1950.  Still, with yesterday’s capture, #86 has set the record for the oldest documented terrapin in Wellfleet Bay at a minimum of 54 years.

Between 1980 when she was first seen and 1985 when next she appeared on a nesting run, she had sustained extreme trauma to her shell with cracks extending from the right rear quarter forward, as well as smaller areas of trauma on left front and back.  You can still see the remnants of those wounds on her carapace today.  We lost sight of #86 for more than a decade until she appeared on yet another nesting run at Turtle Point in June 2000, one day shy of the 20th anniversary of her first capture.  She was seen on other nesting runs in 2001, 2002 and 2004; then disappeared for another five years.


Grande Dame’s Youthful Male Companion Re-enters Water

Yesterday marks the first time she has been captured in the water in an amorous interlude as opposed to on land en route to her nesting site.  She is now one of the largest terrapins on the Outer Cape with a straight-line carapace length of 20.55 centimeters and weighing 1610 grams just after emerging from nearly seven months of winter brumation.  At a minimum age of 54, #86 is the oldest recorded terrapin in the Wellfleet Bay system.  She has done more than her share to maintain the population of this threatened species, despite a near fatal encounter with humans in the early 80s.  Clearly, she’s still an attractive turtle and if we are lucky and diligent this season, we’ll see her again around the 19th or 20th of June as she comes ashore at Turtle Point for her first nest of the season.

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Captured Terrapins Released on Lieutenant Island


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