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The road to motherhood fraught for terrapins


By Mary Landers | June 5, 2020 at 9:04 PM EDT

It’s already been a tough spring for diamondback terrapins. These small turtles live in the salt marsh but lay their eggs on dry land.

In Chatham County that means lots of turtle mamas come up on the causeway of U.S. 80 at a time of year when lots of people are hurrying to the beach on that same road.

On Memorial Day weekend, a team of terrapin caretakers counted 80 crushed turtles on that stretch of highway after more than 30,000 vehicles came and went from Tybee.

Diamondback Terrapin during nesting season

The turtle team, led by Jordan Gray, saves injured turtles and takes them to the veterinarian at Oatland Island Wildlife Center, Dr. Lesley Mailler. But not many of the turtles, which weigh a pound or two, survive an encounter with a vehicle that weighs a ton or two. Mailler has patched up two of them so far this season, which started earlier than usual in late April after a mild winter. She gives them hormone shots to induce egg laying then fixes their cracked shells.

Those eggs are incubated along with eggs harvested from roadkill terrapins when possible. Gray found a freshly struck terrapin on Memorial Day weekend.

“I knew I’d be out there on the causeway patrolling for another couple hours,” he said. “So I just did the egg-ectomy right there in my car on the side of the road. I had everything ready. I had plastic tubs, towels gloves and scissors.”

Georgia Southern University project at Armstrong led by Biology Professor Kathryn Craven incubates the eggs and raises the hatchlings until they’re ready to be released.

While the team saves individual turtles and their eggs, its main purpose is collecting data to help figure out a lasting solution to the problem.

Gray advocates for a fence to keep terrapins off the road. A silt fence placed along U.S. 80 when the road was resurfaced last year managed to keep terrapin deaths down, serving as a proof of concept. Recently, a company called Animex fencing that makes wildlife mitigation solutions offered to donate its turtle fencing for this stretch of U.S. 80, Gray said. He’s in the process of trying to coordinate with the company, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation to make that donation and installation happen.

U.S. 80 is narrow and busy. Gray saw six cars veer off the road on Memorial Day weekend when one motorist stopped to help a terrapin.

“If we work on solutions for the terrapins, we concurrently are working on solutions for human endangerment because people do love these animals,” Gray said. “And there’s a lot of passionate citizens and those who have compassion for wildlife that will stop and put their life at risk and unfortunately the lives of others to help these animals across the road.”

Terrapins are still nesting for another few weeks. Gray expects a wave of nesting this weekend, June 6 and 7, when high tide, their favorite nesting time, coincides with the morning rush to the beach.

Think of human safety first if you feel the urge to help one, said Gray, communications and outreach coordinator for the Turtle Survival Alliance based in Charleston.

“So the main thing is, put your life and the life of other motorists first and foremost, before helping a turtle,” Gray said. “And then once it is safe, just carry the turtle across the road in the direction it was heading and place it on the other side.”

If you find an injured live turtle, call Gray at (912) 659-0978.

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