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

Freeze Dried or Just Plain Frozen 24 April 2002

I swear Im beginning to think that terrapin hatchlings come in freeze dried packages.  And today provided another example to support this absurd hypothesis.

Around ten this morning a fellow was walking down the National Park Trail toward Great Island.  This area of the peninsula is called the Gut, a tombolo that knits together Great Island and Griffin Island and shelters Wellfleet Harbor from Cape Cod Bay.  No vehicular traffic is allowed on Great Island to prevent damage to this fragile habitat, with the sole exception of Park Service patrols.

As he trekked the path between dunes on the west and Herring River marsh on the east, the hiker spotted an unusual “pebble” in the tire rut of the patrol track.  He found Hatchling 002-02, an overwintered hatchling who chose an unfortunate moment to emerge.  Eyes were sealed tight and both forelimbs were injured, apparently from a vehicular encounter.  Luckily, the soft dune sand cushioned the blow.  The hatchling was severely dehydrated and cold-stunned to boot.  The sunrise wind-chill dipped below 40 degrees.  It showed almost no sign of life, and movement in response to stimuli could hardly be discerned.

His rescuer dropped Hatchling 002-02, nicknamed Frisbee, off at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and the Sanctuary called me.  Back at Connemara Cottage, I placed Frisbee in tepid fresh water under a heat lamp.  Within 30 minutes, eyes popped open and all four limbs got into gear, including the injured ones.  In fact, by the time I had prepared a recovery tank, Frisbee had moved beyond active into ornery.  Ive never known a hatchling before who actually tried to bite, or at least gum me.

Once into the heated recovery tank filled with brackish marsh water, Frisbee floated for a few minutes, took a deep breath and began swimming like a lifeguard.  The game plan is to hold her for a few days, so she can both rehydrate and warm up a bit as, we hope, the weather warms up, too.  The tale of the tape for Hatchling 002-02: 2.53 centimeters carapace length, 2.00 plastron, and 3 grams weight.  As with all overwintered hatchlings, she had no egg tooth.

This afternoon offered a minus 0.5 low tide as we approach full moon.  So, Dr. Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College joined me in Blackfish Creek to see if we could find any adult terrapins active.  The air temperature barely touched 50 degrees, accompanied by a gusty northeast breeze right off the ocean.  Whatever residual heat was trapped in creek waters was quickly dissipating.

We saw a single terrapin surface for air during the entire 90 minute tidal period, signaling that some of the turtles who woke during last weeks summer preview have returned to their muddy hibernacula.  Barbara did net one large female who barreled through the rapids underwater.

Terrapin 1007 had previously been observed on 2 July 2000 as she swam through these same, but considerably warmer, rapids.  Back then, she measured 18.8 centimeters carapace, 16.9 centimeters plastron and weighed 1160 grams.  Well, 2001 had been a very good year for this lady, because she now hit the scales at almost 1300 grams and had added two millimeters to her length.  She was quite plump, which may account for the fact that she was still active while others, perhaps less massive, were taking the day off.

Tonight the thermometer will dip into the 30s and tomorrow may not reach 50 degrees.  Not the best weather to greet emerging terrapins.