Previous Page Photo-Diary of a Terrapin Researcher

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

Miracles and Surprises ó 5 December 2003

Bracing for the seasonís first snowstorm, we nonetheless enjoyed two warming surprises.  The first arrived with the frigid morning tide; the second blew in as snow squalls began to pelt the Outer Cape this evening.  In between, we watched as our mostly one-legged terrapin #1999 (see Sometimes Just Being There Makes You a Hero ó 14 October 2003), newly returned from surgery and recovery at the Humane Societyís Cape Wildlife Center, demonstrated compensatory skills in devouring a juicy quahog for dinner.

So cold has the weather turned that ice lines marsh channels and creeks, and slush has formed along the rim of the bay.  The last seven sea turtles came in frozen solid, and things were beginning to look a little gloomy around the sanctuary as dead turtles piled up like cord wood in the freezer.  It is really not a happy transition for the turtle patrol.  Conditions are harsh enough on their own, but when combined with little hope of rescuing one of these endangered critters, the cold begins to settle into our psyche.

The call at 8 a.m. had all the earmarks of another death run.  A large turtle had been spotted by a walker on Corporation Beach in Dennis.  The morning was frigid, the water was icy, and the observer reported the turtle as frozen and dead.  When the recovery team arrived, they concurred with the assessment and the twosome loaded the 36-kilogram, 64.5-centimeter-long loggerhead into the opened back of the pickup for the thirty minute ride back to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.  Thatís the precise moment when the day started to turn around.  The “frozen, dead” turtle began to move its front flippers and tried to lift its head. “Hurray!  Hoorah!!  A live loggerhead.”

This turtle was a real survivor.  Its carapace displayed the heal scars of a double propeller strike that had severely split the shell in two parallel slices.

Its internal body temperature this morning registered 34.9 degrees Fahrenheit.  Yet, this loggerhead hung in and kept struggling for survival as it was quickly loaded into a vehicle and rushed to the New England Aquarium in Boston for emergency medical care.

By the end of the day, the sea turtle stranding season stood at 88, the fifth greatest cold-stunned year on record and only ten turtles behind 2001.

This evening as the snow began to fly, Nate Johnson ó a local waterman and nature photographer ó called with a question.  “Hey, Don.  While I was out on the tidal flats in Chipmanís Cove today, I found a female terrapin.  She was real cold, but alive.  So, I brought her back and hope I did the right thing.”  And you bet he did the right thing.  With our 15-foot astronomical tidal swings, when they coincide with fierce storm fronts like this last week, terrapins can be unearthed from their hibernacula, cold-stun, and die.  With blizzard conditions tonight and tomorrow and Sunday, she would not have survived the weekend if Nate hadnít found her.

A known and marked turtle, #1691, was first captured on 2 July 2002, swimming in the same cove where she was discovered this evening.  Back then she was 10 years old, measured 16.9 centimeters long, and weighed 871 grams.  Today she has grown to 17.6 centimeters and weighs 975 grams.  Shortly after she was rescued from the flats, we took her internal body temperature, which registered only 36.2 degrees Fahrenheit!  The action photo above was taken after she had a few hours to recover in a 50 degree setting.  Iíll gradually raise her temperature over the next few days until she is warm enough to enter a heated tank for the winter.

The last bit of good news to share is about Terrapin 1999, which I found on 14 October, cold and badly injured.  She has only a single intact limb, her left rear.  Her forelimbs are stumps with the right severed around the “elbow” and the left near the “wrist.”  Because terrapins love to shred large chunks of food with their front limbs and claws as they chomp down with their jaws, I had some concern how she would handle big pieces of dinner ó all as an evaluation about her ability to re-enter the wild population.  Tonight I gave her a large juicy quahog to see how she managed.  Well, she passed the test with flying colors, chomping and ripping at the food with her left forelimb, she consumed the whole dinner with no difficulty whatsoever.  Another hurdle cleared for #1999.