October 24, 2001: Class Notes
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Roger Wood 62, a mild-mannered
zoology professor who hardly fits a criminal profile, is used to explaining
himself to police officers at two oclock in the morning. The
story I tell them sounds so crazy they figure its got to be true,
he says. No ones ever given me a sobriety test.
Woods 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 cars 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.
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 shes gravid. This ones
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 turtles
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 diamondbacks biggest threat
is continued habitat destruction as more of its natural breeding areas
are bulldozed and bulkheaded for houses.
Woods 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 dont 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
A longer version of this story appears on PAW Online at www.princeton.edu/~paw.