Previous Page Photo-Diary of a Terrapin Researcher Next Page

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

Spring Surprise: Cold-Stunned Terrapins! ó 22 March 2002

Spring arrived yesterday in the Land of Ooze with a chilly northwest rain.  Today a dense fog enshrouded the Outer Cape as temperatures strained to reach the high 40s.  So, when Taylor the Turtle Pup and I set out from Connemara Cottage for a training run around Lieutenant Island, the last things we expected to encounter were turtles.  We are at least a month too early for their emergence from deep winter brumation.  And with this yearís 120-year record cold snap, we werenít expecting to see our beloved terrapins until early May.

Taylor and I ran along the east side of the island, sloshing through the muddy wrack which had been tossed high on the shoreline with this latest set of full moon tides.  We dodged the few remaining snow patches and melting ice slabs that had broken off from the floe.  As we reached the south marsh channel, dubbed Turtle Pass, which separates east and west islands, I spotted a small turtle shell partly occluded by the salt hay.  I cursed its death, but when I held this yearling as I ran back home, it began to squirm with the warmth from my hand.

We picked up the pace to get the turtle home as quickly as possible and to begin the gradual warming process we have perfected with cold-stunned sea turtles.  As we merged back onto the causeway, I was doubly shocked to see an eight-year-old male terrapin, which had been deposited on the asphalt by the overnight high tide.  In the morning fog, he was a sitting duck for vehicles on the one-lane access road to the island.

So, with yearling in right hand and male in left, we charged across the causeway, over the tinkertoy bridge and back home where they are both resting comfortably for the night.  Yet, while processing these two turtles, the doorbell rang.  A biker asked, “Arenít you the turtle guy?”  He had spotted another cold-stunned terrapin on the north beach of Lieutenant Island where someone had found it in the wrack and left it for dead on the boathouse deck.  I sped across to pick up what proved to be another eight-year-old male, but this one had been left exposed for too long and had succumbed to hypothermia.

I suspect the ice slabs, which drifted in and out with the tides as spring thaw set in, loosened some terrapins from their hibernacula.  Then, this last set of extreme tides unearthed them and deposited the turtles along the flooded wrack.  This afternoon we sent out an urgent message to volunteers and to the local shellfish department to be on the lookout for other terrapins along the Outer Cape coastline.

Flashing back to earlier in the week, I received a call from a resident of Old Wharf.  She was cleaning her fish pond, which had been frozen solid by the brutal winter, killing all her fish.  She found an icy “rock” at the bottom of the pond, which proved to be a nearly frozen, brumating turtle.  She didnít know whether it was a terrapin or a snapper.

A very handsome, four-year-old juvenile snapping turtle he turned out to be.  Like todayís terrapins his eyes were closed and puffy, but he gradually came around as his temperature slowly increased.  For the past few days, he has been amazing local school children.

Connemara Cottage has gone from turtleless to SRO in no time at all.  Welcome, Spring!