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

In Search of Hatchlings — 13 September 2001

Yesterday Mass Audubonís Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary sponsored a public program “In Search of Terrapin Hatchlings,” which was only 200% over-subscribed.  Clearly, the conservation message for this threatened species is getting out to people who can make a difference in its survival here at the end of the known terrapin universe.  After a brief “death-by-viewgraph” orientation on the diamondback and its habitat, we hit the marsh to experience conservation firsthand.  We learned how to find nests and how to protect them.  And we discovered how to rescue hatchlings from a host of predators waiting to attack them just as they prepare to emerge.

Luck shined for both us and the terrapins.  As soon as we began our field search, we stumbled over two twin nests in the middle of Marsh Road within 6 inches of each other.  One contained a rather dusty and dehydrated hatchling dubbed the Road Warrior (or Mel Gibson) by program participants.  We found nests hatching throughout Lieutenant Island, and as icing, we discovered a hatchling resting in the shade of our front tire when we returned to the van after a long morning in the field.

Participants helped excavate nests and used field equipment to measure and weigh hatchlings before releasing them into the marsh.

The greatest joy, though, comes in watching hatchlings make their initial break into sunlight.  At Nest 097, which was laid on 27 June, we observed babies just as they emerged from the escape tunnel.  In the image on the left you see one hatchling nearly out of the ground, while a second follows close behind with only one forelimb showing through the sand.

Drought continues to take its toll.  Many hatchlings seem dehydrated when found lingering in the nest.  And root predation, perhaps exacerbated by the lack of rain, saps moisture and nutrients from eggs.

Excavating Nest 244 this morning, I discovered 6 hatchlings which had been crushed in the nest after they had pipped.  This nest was dug in the middle of a heavily traveled dirt road, but 8 hatchlings had managed to emerge alive.  After investigating several of these road nests this year, and examining the remains of squished hatchlings, Iíve developed the following working hypothesis.  As long as the egg chamber remains undisturbed from above or below, the sound architectural design of the nest ensures its integrity.  However, once something anomalous occurs to break the seal, the nest and its hatchlings are in danger.  It may occur if someone penetrates the nest from outside ó a rare and very low-probability event.  But it may also happen when the hatchlings pip and begin to scratch around the egg chamber digging their way out through the neck of the nest.  Once the soil is loosened, the egg chamberís integrity becomes vulnerable, and the last hatchlings to emerge are subject to damage when vehicles pass overhead.

Normally, and thankfully, nests donít begin to pip or hatch out here at the end of the terrapin universe until after Labor Day and after most summer residents have departed.  But this year, with a 10 day jumpstart on the season, nests began broiling in the roadways too early. The result has been a lot more casualties.

Still, the early season brought us a lot of happy and healthy hatchlings that will have a great opportunity to adjust themselves into the marsh well before the northern chill settles in this autumn.  One could only wish to be the lucky terrapin researcher in the Land of Ooze during the 2010 season when all these babies begin to return to upland sites to dig their own nests.  What a breath-taking sight that will be!