Posts Tagged ‘Massachusetts’

Five Star Day on West Island

Monday, October 13th, 2008

This afternoon we explored the shoreline of West Island in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.  West Island lies on the western shore of Buzzards Bay across the water from Woods Hole, Falmouth and Naushon Island on the east side.  The weather varied from overcast to broken sunshine with temperatures in the chilly 50s and a strong easterly breeze blowing in off the bay and ocean.

West Island on Left; Buzzards Bay in Center; Falmouth & Woods Hole on Right

West Island is not normally a specimen collector’s delight with shoreline filled inches deep and yards thick with codium and eel grass, but we chanced to arrive at dead low and we decided to explore the exposed tidal pools at the southern point of the island.

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West Island Shoreline with Heavy Codium & Eel Grass Wrack

It proved a five star afternoon: seastars, that is.  We had never found seastars on West Island before, but today they seemed scattered throughout the southern tip of the island, hiding in pools of water under rocks, foraging in tidal pools and hectored by ubiquitous seagulls.

First Seastar (Asterias forbesi) on South Point of West Island

Seastars (Asterias forbesi), often popularly called starfish, have five “arms” which can regenerate.  In fact, the natural history says that a seastar needs only a segment of the central disk along with one arm to regenerate into a new seastar.  We should be so lucky!  With mostly cloudy skies, brisk winds and chilly temperatures, seastars were moving even slower than their normal sluggish pace.  But while conditions weren’t in their favor, they did present us some great opportunities to document these magnificent critters.  The following sequence from our first seastar gives an overview of the creature’s dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) sides.

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Seastar under Rock; Dorsal (top) and Ventral (bottom) Views

Seastars have spiny skin and belong to the phylum echinodermata along with sea urchins and sand dollars.   The top or dorsal surface of a common seastar consists of numerous scattered spines. Each of these spines are, in-turn, surrounded by tiny jaws called pedicellariae. The pedicellariae remove sand and other debris and occasionally snag passing prey.  The ventral (bottom) surface of the seastar’s arms is covered with tube feet that have suctions at the bottom of each foot.  Each tube foot works in coordination with other tube feet enabling the seastar to grasp prey or move about over various surfaces.  The orange spot in the dorsal core is called the madreporite and is responsible for the movement of water into the vascular system that controls the movement of the tube feet.  The clip below shows the tube feet in action as it moves a shell along one of its arms.

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Seastar Tube Feet on Ventral (bottom) Side of Arms

Seastars are said to prefer clams, quahogs, oysters, et cetera as prey, but will consume snails in a pinch.  Tube feet on the ventral (bottom) surface act like suction cups, securing each side of a bivalve shell while the arms pull them open.  The seastar then inserts one of its two stomachs into the prey and digestion occurs inside the clam, turning the mollusk into liquid that is guided into the seastar’s mouth by cilia on its arms.  The seastar sucks up the liquified clam.

Ventral Surface with Lots of Shelled Critters Moving Along Tube Feet

The second seastar we encountered had previously regenerated one of its arms which was obviously smaller than the other four.  This ventral image below illustrates the size difference.

Seastar with One Regenerated Arm

More active than the first seastar we had discoverd, this one showed off its speed as it “dashed” along a shallow tidal pool.  I know there are some who say that observing a sailboat race is akin to watching grass grow, but it’s clear that those folks have never invested time as spectators in the ultimate sport of champions: seastar racing.  If you have time to invest, we encourage you to enjoy the next two exquisite videos, beginning with the tube-foot dash through the tidal pool.

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Seastar Glides through Tidal Pool

For those who have survived the previous experience, you are well prepared for the ever-exciting seastar sport of gymnastics; that is, tumbling 180 degrees from ventral up to dorsal up.  Judging is based on artistic content, plus degree of difficulty.  A perfect five point landing earns the highest points, especially from the Eastern European judges who are more technically oriented.

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Seastar Acrobatics

We found another seastar hugging the underside of a rock and rescued a fourth from the ravages of pestering seagulls.  The fifth and last seastar we almost missed because it looked more like a butterfly lying in a shallow pool.  It had lost three of its arms and we thought we had run across a goner. 

“Butterfly” Seastar with Only Two Arms

But a closer examination revealed that this seastar had healed from its injuries and was a lively and healthy critter, perhaps proving the point that chopping up seastars only serves to create more seastars!

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Healthy Two-Armed Seastar

A surprising day for the Turtle Journal team.  Temperature, wind, clouds and season conspired against us.  But the gods smiled and gave us quite literally a five star day.

Fox Island Marsh Conservation Area Welcomes Endangered Babies

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

The Fox Island Marsh Conservation Area lies in South Wellfleet and, along with its neighbor the Pilgrim Spring Woodlands Conservation Area, comprises 68 acres of woods and 100 acres of salt marsh.  An exquisite parcel of these conservation lands is the Whale Bone Point Trail (see Google image below) described as the jewel in the crown for its unmatched overlook views of the Fox Island Marsh and Blackfish Creek.  These lands are owned by the Town of Wellfleet and the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Whale Bone Point

This last week the Fox Island Conservation Area witnessed the arrival of babies from two Massachusetts protected species: diamondback terrapins (threatened) and Eastern box turtles (species of special concern).  While the Whale Bone Point area had been assessed as box turtle habitat and the point has been documented as a terrapin nesting site, these are the very first babies of both species that have actually been discovered on the land as they were being born.   The conservationists, environmentalists and naturalists who worked to protect this precious habitat deserve two thumbs up, one for each of these listed species.

One of Four Eastern Box Turtle Hatchlings

Last week a resident abutting the Whale Bone Point area discovered four Eastern box turtle hatchlings in a nest in her mulched landscaping.  That story was reported below under Eastern Box Turtle Hatchlings.  These adorable babies were a bit disoriented, one might even say “grumpy,” at being so uncerimoniously disturbed from their post-natal snooze, and they were a little dehydrated, too.  So, after a few days of turtle R&R, the foursome was released into the protected woodlands of Whale Bone Point near their nest site.

Release of Eastern Box Turtle Hatchlings

After releasing these box turtle hatchlings on Friday, we trekked down to the tip of Whale Bone Point where we had documented diamondback terrapin nesting since 2000 based on depredated nests and discarded egg shells.  We discovered three emergence holes within about 12 inches of each other that contained the remnants of escaped hatchlings, undeveloped eggs and some eggs that had been destroyed by root and insect predation.  In the middle nest, tucked under the lip and cradled in roots that had drained moisture from the nest and had contorted the embryos inside their egg shells within their nose-like grip, three pipped and cracked eggs remained.  One had not survived the attack, but two others were alive, albeit distorted, severely dehydrated and frozen in a trance-like stupor.  The clip below documents our removal of one of these hatchlings from its egg cocoon; the babies were so weak that they couldn’t free themselves from the dried egg shell and dig themselves out of the nest.

Rescue of Terrapin Hatchling Trapped by Roots and Dehydration

You can see from the clip above how undersized these hatchlings are.  The image below gives you a good sense of their actual size.

Undersized Terrapin Hatchlings

The good news:  Terrapins (and most turtles, actually) are Timex critters.  “They take a licking and keep on ticking.”  Turtles are extremely resilient.  Given a little TLC, even the most hapless turtle can be given a head-start toward survival.  These two babies just need a few days of care before they, too, will join their siblings in the nursery salt marsh abutting the Fox Island Marsh Conservation Area.  And in about eight years … Mark your calendar for June 15th, 2016 … they may be returning to Whale Bone Point to deposit their own nest of hatchlings.  And so the cycle goes on.  Save one turtle and your action ripples through the ages.  Precisely like the “Time Machine” that Nature truly is.

Two Terrapin Hatchlings Released at Whale Bone Point

Sad Tale of Three Dead Leatherback Sea Turtles

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Leviathans of the sea and giants of the reptile family, leatherback sea turtles define the term superlative.  Ranging in weight up to a ton and the size of a small Volkswagen, no one who has encountered one of these living relics in the wild comes away from the experience unchanged.  They are simply magnificent beasts that peacefully ply the world’s oceans in search of slurpy jellyfish.  The open mouth of a leatherback sea turtle (see below) is perfectly configured for this quest and is the last thing that a jellyfish senses before the lights go out.

Mouth of 650+ Pound Male Leatherback Sea Turtle

Unfortunately, we humans offer them a complex series of lethal obstacles to avoid during their peaceful voyages.  Gill nets drown them, longlines hook them, propellers slice them, weirs trap them and lobster buoys entangle them.  Especially during the summer months in Cape Cod and Buzzards Bays as they chase plentiful jellyfish, endangered leatherbacks face a host of potential threats.

Male Leatherback Arrives at Wellfleet Sanctuary for Necropsy

A freshly dead 650+ pound male leatherback beached in Provincetown on Sunday and Mass Audubon’s Bob Prescott, the state sea turtle stranding coordinator, conducted a necropsy at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to determine the cause of death and to gather scientific information to help us conserve this endangered species.  In addition to his staff, Bob (with large caliper below) was assisted by Kara Dodge, a PhD candidate at UNH and former NOAA sea turtle coordinator, and the Turtle Journal team.

Bob Prescott (Calipers), Don Lewis (Camera) and Kara Dodge (Scalpel)

Too large for normal scales, the mass of leatherbacks is determined by weighing the Mass Audubon pickup truck at the dump with the turtle inside, and then re-weighing the truck without the turtle.  The post revealed that this animal had been very healthy.  “It had everything going for it,” stated Bob and Kara.  Both flippers showed signs of a recent entanglement, but nothing so severe that these wounds would have caused death.  Instead, the cause of death was determined to be drowning.  The likely scenario for the death of such an inherently healthy animal is that it got entangled in a buoy line with both flippers wrapped in the rope and perhaps its body trunk as well.  With the last series of spring tides, the turtle may not have had sufficient line to reach the surface.  Like all turtles, leatherbacks are air breathers and will drown if held under water for a sustained period.  How this drowned animal had then become disentangled from the lines that had been wrapped tightly around its flippers is merely a matter of conjecture.

This evening we received a call from Bob Prescott that there had been a report of a dead leatherback on a Westport beach near Horseneck.  We drove out to the site and after about 30 minutes of searching, we discovered a badly decomposed and deflated leatherback sea turtle.  Talking to a local resident, we learned it had been bouncing along the beach for at least the last three days.  We estimated the carapace at approximately 161.3 centimeters, but decomposition and deflation may have altered any accurate rendering of its precise size.  Bones were exposed throughout from head to back to flippers.

Decomposed Leatherback Sea Turtle in Wesport, MA

Another decomposed, 600 pound leatherback washed ashore at Pico Beach in Mattapoisett Saturday night (  Dealing with one dead leatherback is serious as population numbers of this critically endangered species continue to plummet.  Finding two dead leatherback carcasses in a weekend is a tragedy; but three dead leatherbacks fall beyond emotions and words.  Yet, a ray of turtle hope winked through the afternoon when a call came into the Hotline.  A woman found a small 1/2 dollar size turtle in Plymouth, Massachusetts as kids were placing it in the ocean and the animal was being forced back to the shore by wave action and its own volition.  She thought she had discovered a baby sea turtle, or perhaps a diamondback terrapin hatchling.  A few questions cleared up the mystery.  Color?  Dark, almost black.  Long tail?  Yes, very long.  Bump along the tail?  Yes, like an ancient dinosaur.  Jagged edge along rear of carapace (top shell)?  Yep.  Does it have a yellow “button” in the middle of its tummy?  Yes.  Congratulations!  You are the proud holder of a snapping turtle hatchling.  With just a few more questions we discovered the local fresh water source from whence the hatchling probably came, either through its own design or more likely with the help of local kids.

Snapping Turtle Hatchling

You’re right.  Snapping turtles aren’t endangered and they’re not leatherbacks.  But that doesn’t diminish the joy in helping a hatchling find hospitable habitat where it might have a fighting chance of survival.  Saving one turtle … even a snapper … isn’t a bad way to close the day.