October 24, 2001: Class Notes


1991-2001 & Graduate School

Class Notes Profiles:

Turtle doctor
Roger Wood 62 nurses diamondbacks injured by cars

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Turtle doctor
Roger Wood ’62 nurses diamondbacks injured by cars

Roger Wood ’62, a mild-mannered zoology professor who hardly fits a criminal profile, is used to explaining himself to police officers at two o’clock in the morning. “The story I tell them sounds so crazy they figure it’s got to be true,” he says. “No one’s ever given me a sobriety test.”

Wood’s suspicious behavior occurs on June nights on causeways leading to Stone Harbor and other seaside resorts in Cape May County, New Jersey, where he can be found hunched over the carcasses of diamondback turtles, looking for signs of life. Diamondbacks live in the salt marsh, and in June and early July the females crawl onto high ground to lay their eggs. Many wind up on roadways and are hit by cars.

In 1989, Wood launched a project to rescue diamondbacks during their six-week nesting season. Now the causeways have “Turtle X-ing” signs and are patrolled by volunteers. Sometimes they find a turtle upended, with just minor injuries — grazed by a car’s tire and flipped, or “tiddlywinked,” as Wood puts it. Even if her shell is broken, a turtle may survive with a little help from her friends, who may literally wire her back together until the wound heals. If the wound is fatal, the eggs can often be extracted and incubated and the hatchlings returned to the wild.

“Turtle Central” is the Wetlands Institute, a research station in Stone Harbor. Wood is its director of research, and during the summer he oversees college interns studying coastal ecology (the rest of the year he teaches at nearby Richard Stockton College). Interns help with the Turtle Rescue Project, and during the height of nesting season the place is part emergency room, nursery, and rehab center for local diamondbacks.

In one room, eggs taken from a dead turtle are incubated in a plastic container. Another container holds inch-long hatchlings, and in a cardboard box an adult female with a badly cracked carapace clings to life. Wood lifts her up and inserts a finger in the soft flesh near her tail. He doubts she will make it, but his digital inspection reveals she’s gravid. “This one’s a candidate for what we call an ‘eggoctomy.’ ”

In a typical year, 500 diamondbacks are killed by cars in Cape May County, and throughout the turtle’s Massachusetts-to-Texas range, fatalities number in the many thousands. More drown in commercial crab traps (Wood lobbies for laws requiring traps fitted with turtle excluders). But the diamondback’s biggest threat is continued habitat destruction as more of its natural breeding areas are bulldozed and bulkheaded for houses.

Wood’s team rescues 600 to 800 eggs a year, of which 250 to 300 hatch. He estimates that two out of three released hatchlings reach breeding age. Replacements don’t add up to the number squashed, and the turtles may be headed for a population crash. Wood continues to do what he can. His advice to shoregoers: “When you see a turtle crossing the road, slow down, stop, pick her up, cross her in the direction she was traveling, and wish her good luck.”

By J. I. Merritt ’66
J. I. Merritt is a freelance writer in Pennington, New Jersey.

A longer version of this story appears on PAW Online at www.princeton.edu/~paw.


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