Since 2016, the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance (NECWA), in collaboration with Mass Audubon at Wellfleet Bay, has been studying and conserving Diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) in the marshes of Wareham, Marion, Mattapoisett and Pocasset, Massachusetts. The Diamondback Terrapin is the only brackish-water turtle that lives in the coastal marshes of New England and is listed as a threatened species in Massachusetts. In the past, this medium-sized turtle was abundant in many of our coastal marshes and waterways. Terrapin populations now face many threats to their continued survival, including the loss of salt marsh habitat and suitable nesting sites due to rising sea level, coastal flooding and increased erosion. Nesting females in the spring and their hatchlings in the fall face road mortality issues as they move to and from marshes and nesting areas, often having to cross busy streets and highways. All individuals, regardless of sex or age class, must interact with increasing vessel traffic and fishery activities in the marshes and coastal waterways in which they live. And entrapment in both commercial and recreational fishing gear, including lobster traps and blue crab pots, has resulted in a large number of terrapin deaths in the SouthCoast area.
Activities associated with our SouthCoast Terrapin Project are permitted through the State and start in early spring and continue through late fall. Throughout the season, we conduct visual head counts at specific shore locations, such as boat ramps and beach access areas, to determine terrapin distribution and population density. During the nesting season from late May through mid-July, our focus shifts to mature females who leave the marsh looking for suitable nesting sites on land. Our goal is to catch nesting females after they have successfully nested but before they return to the water. For these individuals and for all individuals we are able to catch, whether in or out of the water, we will document their size and weight, collect photographs for photo-identification and PIT tag them before release.
NECWA also works hard to protect Diamondback terrapin nests in an effort to increase hatchling success. This work takes on various forms, including the collaboration with residents of The Cove, a community in Marion that oversee a man-made turtle garden. Working with these residents and other volunteers, we place metal cages over nests to reduce predation by local predators that include coyotes, skunks and raccoons. NECWA also protects nests at our 7 field sites that are located in Mattapoisett, Marion and Wareham. Recently, we have had a lot of success using self-releasers like chicken wire tacked down over the nest, to reduce egg and hatchling predation. Self-releasers keep predators from digging out the nest while still allowing hatchlings to escape when they emerge later in the season.
When female terrapins lay their eggs in dangerous or inappropriate areas, such as parking lots or driveways, NECWA relocates these nests to ensure the safety and survival of the developing babies. Most hatchlings emerge from their nests in late August through September and this is a busy time for NECWA because we document hundreds of terrapins before their release into the upper parts of the marsh. Throughout the season, we respond to calls about all types of turtles that may be in need of rescue, relocation or rehabilitation if they have identified injuries.
In 2016, NECWA began using drones to support our field research activities by creating high-resolution maps of fragile barrier beaches where terrapins nest. Current maps at high-resolution are needed in order to accurately plot seasonal nest locations. These maps are also used to determine rates of erosion and the amount of suitable nesting area available over the course of the season and from one season to the next. In 2019, NECWA expanded drone activities to include exploratory flights in areas of the marsh that are difficult and dangerous to access. These flights lead to our development of hovering and waypoint flights that are standardized and repeatable flights that can be used to collect data for population studies. Drones are also being used to study terrapin behavior and to support photo-identification studies.
The use of drones to support field research activities greatly decreases human interaction in the delicate marsh environments and allows researchers the ability to study an aquatic species that is often shy and elusive. NECWA’s President and Founder, Krill Carson, has developed a number of drone survey protocols that standardize aspects of each flight to ensure repeatability. Fixed flight parameters include drone speed and height as well as standardized GPS start and end positions. During population surveys, Krill has incorporated habituation periods at the start and end of each flight to reduce the negative impacts that the drone’s presence may have on terrapins in its vicinity, to reduce any negative disturbance caused by the drone overhead.
In 2020, NECWA expanded its educational outreach through the creation of a head start program for Diamondback terrapins with various schools and educators in the southcoast area. This program was originally designed for students and teachers in the classroom. However, given issues related to COVID-19 and the absence of most in-person classes, NECWA received permission from the State to allow trained NECWA staff and volunteers to instead, to conduct the terrapin program via ZOOM. Each staff member and volunteer is asked to collaborate with one or more teachers in Massachusetts and surrounding states, providing materials that can be used by teachers who must now teach remotely. Through the use of a shared Google drive, terrapin head starters upload growth and weight data, as well as photographic images and videos of their hatchlings that can be accessed by participating teachers. NECWA also has a live web cam in the office that all participating teachers and their students can access in order to check on the terrapin hatchling that is being raised in the office. The response from teachers to date is very positive because it has provided additional enrichment opportunities and curriculum that teachers can use with their students.
Use our Southcoast Diamondback Terrapin Form below.