Tales of Turtles In New York City

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Rebecca Czaja, a recent graduate, to share her fieldwork story from her Masters project studying turtles in New York City (yes you heard her!). Check out the end of the post for more about Rebecca!

Turtles in New York City? That’s the reaction I usually get when I explain my Masters research project. I worked with the Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research Project, which has been studying diamondback terrapins at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (JBWR) for almost 20 years. JBWR, which sits on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, is not only the nesting site for hundreds of terrapins but also an important habitat for migratory and resident birds, insects, and other reptiles.

As part of a long term monitoring and conservation project, I was responsible for finding nesting terrapins, which are then collected to gather data such as weight and shell length. In addition, a protective cage is placed over the nests to prevent predation. Finding a nesting terrapin without scaring her off the nest requires a little bit of skill, good eyes (or binoculars), and a lot of luck. While a few terrapins are bold enough to nest right at your feet, most will abandon their attempt to nest if they see you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself tiptoeing through thorny rose bushes or carefully kneeling in a field of poison ivy just to hide from a terrapin. The key is to stay out of sight until she’s laid her eggs, at which point she’ll finish burying the eggs even if you get too close for comfort. How do you know she’s done laying her eggs? She does a little dance. As she pushes dirt into the hole and pats it down, she appears to be doing a jig.

diamondback terrapin

A female diamondback terrapin collected after nesting.

For my project, I focused on studying how precipitation impacts whether terrapin nests get eaten by raccoons. In addition to monitoring unprotected, natural nests for signs of predation, I also built and monitored over 200 artificial nests.

There are a bunch of possible ways to build artificial nests. I picked the simplest method: dig a small hole and fill it back up. Even without any eggs or terrapin scent, raccoons were attracted to these nests. I also tried filling nests with terrapin-scented sand, which was made by putting a terrapin in a box full of sand for at least 20 minutes. Unfortunately, getting the sand to smell just enough like a natural nest is an imprecise science. The terrapin-scented artificial nests ended up smelling so strongly that raccoons tried to predate every single nest, rain or shine. But the beauty of science is you live and you learn. So I stuck with artificial nests filled with plain old sand.

plastic bottle used for a rain gauge

Ecology is the art of doing meaningful science with the simplest materials. My rain gauges were made from plastic bottles washed up onshore, duct tape, and sticks.

Doing research that depends on it raining at just the right time is nerve-wracking, to say the least. The month of June was unusually dry this summer, which left me constantly worried that I’d never get enough rain to finish the project. Especially because I not only needed it to rain, but to rain on a day when I had found a nesting terrapin. The first time it rained on a day when I had natural nests, I was ecstatic. The rain was unexpected, so I only had about an hour’s warning to hurry almost 1.5 miles across the park to place rain gauges at my nests. Fueled by my excitement, I got the rain gauges installed just in time. Of course, on the walk back I got soaked by the downpour and was chased by a Canada goose, but nothing was going to spoil my day!

 

Terrapin nesting season lasts about two months at JBWR, and then come the hatchlings. Yes, they’re as cute as you’re imagining. Just like adult females, hatchlings are measured and weighed. I then cut out a small piece from the edge of their shell in a specific location so that if they’re recaptured as adults, we’ll know what year they hatched. The piece of shell will also be used for DNA analysis. Hatchlings are then released near their nest, where they either run for cover in some vegetation or make a break for the water. All we can do from that point on is hope we see them again when the females are old enough to nest!

diamondback terrapin hatchlings

Diamondback terrapin hatchlings after being released at JBWR

It’s amazing to think that less than a year ago I didn’t even know there were turtles in New York City. My Masters project taught me a lot: beach trash has endless uses, rain is unpredictable, and terrapins are much faster on land than you expect. But most importantly it reminded me each and every day of nature’s resilience. Watching a new cohort of terrapins hatch and make their way into Jamaica Bay’s marshes, despite pollution and habitat destruction, makes me optimistic that there’s still time to protect mother nature’s invaluable resources and beauty.

Rebecca CzajaRebecca Czaja recently completed her Masters in Marine Biology at Northeastern University. She conducted her Masters research project in Dr. Russell Burke’s lab at Hofstra University. She is also an alum of Tufts University, where she studied Biology and Environmental Studies.

Twitter: @becca_sea

Advertisements