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Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area

An Unusual Day — 6 June 2001

With northwest wind howling across the bay, and salty foam frothing the creek like bubble bath, this morning’s low tide seemed slightly off tempo and definitely in a minor key.  Even the turtles smirked a knowing glance that all was not quite well in the Land of Ooze.

Despite rough visibility, five terrapins were captured: one adult male (#701 above) and four pre-pubescent females.  Each in its way presented head-scratching anomalies.  Terrapin 701 was last seen exactly one year ago in the same spot, Blackfish Creek.  Since then he managed to ding his carapace midway along the left side marginals.  He also showed an injury to his right rear limb which left a small scar and two missing claws.

Then there was Turtle #1077.  She’s a very small 8-year-old female with 17, vice 13, scutes on her carapace.  Several of her annual growth lines are tightly compressed, and at less than 11 centimeters carapace length and only 254 grams, she’s far below the growth model for an 8-year-old female — much closer to the expected size of a male at that age.  Yet, all identifying sex characteristics mark her as female.  For comparison, see Terrapin 1078 (another and a typical 8-year-old female) and Terrapin 1077 below.

Turtle 1078 doesn’t escape the weirdness of this day.  In fact, she may be the most unusual of all.  In every respect, #1078 seemed a well nourished and normal pre-pubescent female in her last season before full sexual maturity — that is, nesting.  She measured 15.2 centimeters and weighed 567 grams.  The nesting threshold for Wellfleet Bay hovers around 15.75 centimeters and 650 grams.  But when she was examined closely, Terrapin 1078 showed serious recent trauma to her rear limbs.  It looked as though she had been caught in something and, in the struggle to break free, had injured herself.  With a deep gash and necrotic tissue showing on her right rear limb, we opted to rush her to the Humane Society’s Cape Wildlife Center in West Barnstable under veterinary director Dr. Rachel Blackmer.  The consensus assessment was that the right limb would need to be amputated above the injury, but that the left would heal.  Under Dr. Blackmer’s medical care, there is every expectation that she will return to the wild in a little over three weeks, and with any luck, be nesting by this time next year.


The other two captures were frisky juvenile females, 5 and 6 years old. Like all youngsters these critters were spunky and entertained the staff photographer from the Cape Codder newspaper who tried to document their chaotic scramble back into the bay.