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

“Tough Love” in Little Pleasant Bay — 17 April 2002

The heat wave reached Cape Cod this morning.  Nothing like its counterpart on the mainland, of course, but still 77 degree temperatures in mid-April are not the usual occurrence for the Land of Ooze.  Water temperatures in the creeks hit the high 60s, awakening any sleepy-head terrapins who had hit the snooze button when the alarm rang on the 14th.

Elizabeth Hogan, a turtle volunteer with Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, hauled her kayak to the Orleans town landing (X marks the spot) at the River section of Little Pleasant Bay.  After studying research maps of the area, she decided to revisit Henson’s Cove (outlined in red) where turtles were captured during 1999 — the last season any sustained attention was devoted to the Pleasant Bay population on the ocean side of the Outer Cape.

Paddling down river, she reached Henson’ Cove an hour or so before low tide and drifted with the slight westerly breeze as she watched for snorkeling turtles.  She spotted three soon after arriving and as many as a dozen during two forays to the cove.

But the most interesting encounter was discovered on the oozy bottom.  She found a male horseshoe crab and a male terrapin locked in a deadly embrace.  The horseshoe crab had hooked onto the rear limb of the turtle and was holding him underwater and underneath the crab.  The terrapin couldn’t get away from the crab’s grip.  We have no idea whether this scene reflected some sinister intent between the two animals, or whether it was simply a case of mistaken identity.  Male horseshoe crabs have been known to latch onto anything that’s round and moves, hoping they’ve hit the jackpot and found a living, breathing female companion.  My wading boots have been the object of more than few amorous approaches by hopeful male horseshoe crabs.  Whatever the motivation, Elizabeth’s quick intervention prevented a potential tragedy — for a terrapin needs to breath even when being seduced by an unwelcomed suitor.  And he was incurring a substantial oxygen debt while battling for his life.

With Elizabeth’s help, both survived the event.  The horseshoe crab slipped back into the ooze, and the terrapin was ferried back to Henson’s Cove after measuring and weighing and checking today’s stats against those of his last appearance.

Terrapin 674 is a recapture from the late 90s.  He’s a mature male measuring 12.35 centimeters carapace length and 10.2 plastron.  He weighed a healthy 292 grams.  It wasn’t surprising, but still a little disappointing, for this first capture in Pleasant Bay to be a recapture even after a three year absence.  We had noticed during earlier studies that even with relatively few captures in this population, the recapture rate was substantially higher than Wellfleet Harbor, hinting at a much smaller population with little recruitment.  Some had speculated that the storm breakthrough of the barrier beach had altered the formerly protected Pleasant Bay habitat in ways that may have adversely affected its existing terrapin population.  With Elizabeth Hogan and other interested volunteers and staff, we hope to learn the truth of the Pleasant Bay population in the coming year or two.

In other turtle news, Darth has left the building.  This big, handsome snapping turtle departed Connemara Cottage en route to freedom with a brief refueling stop at the Humane Society’s Cape Wildlife Center.  But you can’t lose a turtle without gaining one in return.  The CWC folks conveyed to my charge a rehabilitated Eastern box turtle who had been dropped off at the Humane Society without a source location.  So, this afternoon, box turtle #101 (Scallop) was released in his new home in conservation land on Lieutenant Island.  Over the last couple of years I’ve run into a mature female box turtle (Ghost) many times on the island.  But I’ve never found a male box turtle companion.  So, perhaps in a few years we’ll find box turtle hatchlings sledding the dunes with terrapin hatchlings on Lieutenant Island.

And finally, terrapin Hatchling 001-02, who had been dubbed P. Lucky by his rescuer Miss Emily Sperbeck and her mom Susan, returned to freedom.  P. Lucky was discovered on 18 January (see Expecting the Unexpected) after a series of storm fronts passed over the Cape, obviously exposing her over-wintering nest.  She was thought dead when found and revived once the warmth of Emily’s hands permeated his chilled exterior.  P. Lucky has been living in a heated tank at Connemara Cottage since his discovery, but today he took advantage of the heat wave to strike out on his own.  P. Lucky goes with all our best wishes.  Perhaps with his distinctively sculpted carapace we might identify him in a few years when he’s swimming in the creeks with his fellow classmates from the 2001 cohort.