Maryland Coastal Bays

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Citizen Scientists Assist with Terrapin Survey - April 30, 2017

               The diamondback terrapin is more than just a school mascot or the Maryland state reptile — it is the symbol for healthy and productive Coastal Bays. This amazing turtle is comfortable on both land and in the water, calling our marshes, beaches, and bays home. But while we can see terrapins almost anywhere on the Eastern Shore, we still have much to learn about this elusive turtle.

                Terrapins are perfectly suited for the Coastal Bays ecosystem. Not only do they have long nails that they can use for digging or climbing on land, they also have webbed feet that allow them to swim and dive for food. Because terrapins spend most of their time in the water hunting for food, they have evolved the ability to hold their breath for a long period of time since they do not possess gills; a mature terrapin can hold its breath anywhere from 45 minutes to five hours.

                Reproduction for diamondback terrapins occurs from May through July, depending on temperature. Females will crawl onto sandy beaches or dunes, dig a hole roughly 6 inches deep, and then lay her clutch of eggs, which are usually 8-12 eggs per clutch. After 60-120 days, the eggs will hatch, forcing the terrapin hatchlings to navigate their way to water in order to feed.

                Mature female terrapins can lay around 3 clutches per year — about 36 eggs total per season. Unfortunately, due to predation and storm events, most terrapin eggs and hatchlings do not make it to maturity; only 1-3 percent of eggs make it to hatchlings and a similarly low percentage of hatchlings survive to sexual maturity.

                One of the biggest problems facing terrapin populations in our Coastal Bays are crab pots — especially “ghost pots,” which are crab pots that are no longer attached to a marker or float so they will never get hauled in and collected. Crab pots are dangerous for terrapins, especially the smaller males and immature terrapins, because they are lured into the pots by the crab bait, get stuck and then drown in the traps because they need to surface in order to breathe.

                The best way to solve this problem is to equip all crab pots with Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs). BRDs are orange plastic and wire rectangles that are large enough to let crabs through but small enough to block terrapins from getting into the pots and getting stuck. For them to work they need to be about 1 3/4 inches wide and 4 3/4inches long. Some crab pots sold today already have BRDs installed; however, if you buy a pot without one, they are cheap to buy or build and easy to install with directions on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. If you are in need of a turtle excluder, contact the Maryland Coastal Bays Program to outfit your crab pots.

                This year, the annual Diamondback Terrapin Survey will be held from May 30th through June 3rd. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP), partnering with the Maryland Terrapin Working Group, is looking for volunteers to help with the annual survey. 

                The annual terrapin head count survey is held to better understand their status in the Maryland. The Coastal Bays count will consist of surveys in all five bays including tidal creeks and marsh guts. As with past years, surveys can be conducted by crews in motorized boats or canoes, kayaks, and SUPs or by land.

                We are looking for boat owners who can provide transportation for observers to identify turtles in the water (the terrapin is typically the turtle occupying brackish/salt water, but other turtles, such as snapping turtles, may venture into those waters as well) and individuals who can accurately fill out survey forms in the field, including GPS coordinates.

                Locations of surveys will depend on the number of crews that are available.  If you are interested in participating in the survey, please contact the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, Katherine Phillips at 410-213-2297 x 109 or kphillips@mdcoastalbays.org and indicate if you have a boat and the location you are interested in covering or if you would like to be an observer, or scribe. 

                We are also seeking birders who might be willing to provide instruction and use of their spotting scopes, while helping new citizen scientists with the process. Spotting scopes allow volunteers to get accurate data counts of the terrapins, while having an enjoyable experience.

                If you have not participated in a previous Terrapin Surveys and would like to participate this year, please RSVP to attend one of the following trainings: Thursday, May 18th at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 21st at 2 p.m. at the MCBP office, at 8219 Stephen Decatur Highway in Berlin. To RSVP for the training or survey please contact Katherine Phillips at 410-213-2297 x 109 or kphillips@mdcoastalbays.org.

Jackson is the former Educational Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and current graduate student at Clemson University.

 



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