Dark Night — 25 November 2000

While strong winds and high tides drive cold-stunned sea turtles onto November beaches, perting our attention to these visitors, exotic and tropical, we can’t forget Cape Cod Bay’s resident turtles — the exquisite, yet threatened, diamondback terrapins.  And while most right-thinking terrapins have burrowed under the ooze for seven months of well-earned brumation, their habitat warrants constant inspection to ensure it remains hazard free and to collect the remains of turtles that may have succumbed to some unfortunate circumstance this fall.  Luckily, the sea turtle patrols demand high tides and the salt marsh sweeps need low tides.


Full Moon on November 25th

One disadvantage of a new moon cycle in late November at the northern end of the universe is trying to find a usable conjunction of low tide and sunlight.  Today, for instance, the morning low comes two and a half hours before sunrise, and the evening low falls a half hour after sunset.  I chose evening.  On the plus side, though, this latest string of frigid days has coated the muddy muck with a thin layer of ice, allowing deeper penetration into the marsh.  That is, as long as you engage in something akin to a “chicken walk,” placing each boot gingerly, yet squarely on the ground ahead, spreading your weight as evenly as possible, and quickly moving on before you break through the wafer crunch and sink into quick mud.  Perhaps we should trade-in our boots for chicken feet or snow shoes.

Peering through the murky darkness, I spotted a dead female terrapin lying plastron-up at the edge of the main marsh creek south of Indian Neck’s Fox Island.  A quick flashlight check of her marginals showed she had been captured and marked previously: #388.  Her history would have to wait until I could search the database back home.

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Dead Female Terrapin 388 in Fox Island WMA

Terrapin 388 had first been observed on 12 July 1995 as she came ashore on Lieutenant Island (across the channel from the Indian Neck marsh where she now lay dead) to nest on a dirt road by Turtle Pass.  At the time she was 16.0 centimeters carapace length and 680 grams weight, both of which indicate that this July afternoon a half decade ago marked her first year of sexual maturity and her first nesting season.  Since then, she had increased about a centimeter in all dimensions, a normal growth pattern for mature Wellfleet terrapins.  And she died at the height of her productive years.

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Carapace and Plastron of Dead Terrapin 388

Her body was mostly decomposed, yet her shell showed no signs of predation or injury.  The only marks she sported were some mating scratches on her 5th (rear) vertebral.  Unfortunately, her remains bring us no closer to definitively establishing the cause of death for the 23 terrapin carcasses we recovered so far this fall from the Fox Island Wildlife Management area.

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