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

First Terrapin Hatchlings of 2002 — 17 August 2002

Surprise!  Eight days earlier than 2001 and 19 days earlier than 2000, the first diamondback terrapin hatchling emerged in the Land of Ooze this morning.  July was hot and August even hotter; both months were bone dry.  So, luckily, we began looking earlier, too.

Using her sharp egg tooth (note the tip of the upper lip below the nostrils), Hatchling 017 pierced her shell some days ago and tunneled to freedom.  MaryBeth Dyer, an alumna of the 2000 and 2001 terrapin field schools, dropped by from the mainland for morning rounds, and we spotted this gorgeous hatchling on Turtle Point’s high dune.  She was slightly dehydrated, but after a bit of soaking, snapped back to robust activity.

Her nest (#029-02) had been laid by Terrapin 1039, a 14-year-old female, in the north tire track of Marsh Road.  Because this spot would be so vulnerable to crushing by vehicular traffic if the nest hatched before Labor Day, we relocated the nest to Turtle Point.  It consisted of 14 eggs, all of which weighed a total of 125 grams.

Excavating the nest, we discovered that the top layer of three eggs had succumbed to the drought.  Beneath them, the egg chamber was fully infested with fly maggots.  Six pipped hatchlings, still in their opened eggs, were swarmed by hundreds of tiny maggots, which had penetrated through the broken shells inside the eggs themselves.  One had already been killed by the infestation; the other five needed immediate attention.  At the bottom of the nest lay four viable eggs.  Three of these were completely intact, although maggots were clinging to the shells, waiting for the hatchlings to pip.  The fourth broke its shell while we watched and punched its tiny forelimb into the air.

This last baby, along with the five pipped hatchlings, were rushed to the lab where we removed hopefully any trace of maggots.  As premies, their yolk sacs had yet to be absorbed sufficiently for them to emerge from the nest naturally and disappear into the marsh.

We placed each of them into an isolated warm, moist container, so they could continue to develop almost naturally, and to ensure that if anyone still was infested with maggots, it would not infect the others.

For the record, the statistics on these first hatchlings of 2002 are as follows, reading carapace length, carapace width, plastron length (all in centimeters) and weight in grams.  (Note: Numbering starts at 17 because the first 16 hatchlings of this year were overwintered, springtime emergers from the 2001 cohort.)

Hatchling 017:  2.85, 2.5, 2.5, 6
Hatchling 018:  2.8, 2.3, 2.6, 6
Hatchling 019:  3.1, 2.4, 2.6, 7
Hatchling 020:  2.8, 2.3, 2.65, 6
Hatchling 021:  2.95, 2.35, 2.55, 7
Hatchling 022:  2.9, 2.3, 2.45, 6

The three unpipped eggs and the slightly pipped hatchling were cleansed of maggots and placed in a large bucket of moist sand to complete the hatching process.  Since the pipped hatchling was more at risk to infestation than the three intact eggs, I have kept it isolated for the others until it emerges and I can be sure it is maggot free.

Finally, while we never actually see mother and daughter together in the real world, the miracle of digital photography can give us an opportunity to examine the two side-by-side.  Here’s #1039 as she appeared on 17 June 2002 after she laid Nest 029-02.  On the right is one of beautiful her hatchlings from this morning.