Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

August 7, 2001:
Helping the turtle cross the road
Roger Wood '62 prowls New Jersey causeways looking for turtles who've lost the race against cars

By Jim Merritt '66

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 June and early July is when the females crawl onto high ground to lay their eggs. Many wind up on roadways and are crushed 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.

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 Richard Stockton College, in Pomona, New Jersey, near Atlantic City). 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, thumbnail-sized turtle eggs, arrayed in neat rows in a plastic container, bask under an incubation light. "We took these from a road kill," said Wood. "They start out a translucent pink, and if they turn chalky white like most of these it's a good sign -- it means they're fertile." The incubating temperature is kept at 86 degrees Fahrenheit, which for reasons not well understood produces females; lower the temperature by six degrees and you get mostly males. The eggs will hatch in six to eight weeks. The young will then pass the winter being fed and cared for at the "Turtle Farm" at Stockton College, until reaching what Wood calls a "relatively predator-proof" length of two to three inches. Come spring, kids recruited from local elementary and grade schools will help return them to the wild.

At another container, Wood checks on a half dozen inch-long hatchlings. They seem equally curious about him. "This is our Head Start Program. They're looking at me like that because to them I'm the refrigerator, and they think I'm going to feed them. This year's group is kind of a runty because we can't import the turtle feed we normally use. It's by far the best food for captive turtles, but it contains ground-up cow bones and has been banned because of concern about mad-cow disease. Notice the variation in shell patterns and colors, from yellowish green to gray and almost black -- that's very unusual for turtles but typical of diamondbacks. They're a very attractive species, and there's a certain aesthetic pleasure I get in working with them."

On the floor, an adult female with a cracked and bloodied carapace claws listlessly at the sides of the cardboard box in which she's been placed. Wood lifts her up and inserts a finger in the soft flesh near her tail. He doubts she will survive, but his digital inspection reveals she's gravid. "This one's a candidate for what we call an eggoctomy."

Digging fossil turtles

Wood's professional fascination with turtles goes back almost 40 years. At Princeton he majored in geology and wrote his senior thesis on fossil mammals under Professor Glen Jepsen '27, but as a graduate student at Harvard he switched to fossil turtles. On a dig in Venezuela in the 1970s he unearthed the biggest turtle known to science, a freshwater behemoth from the Age of Dinosaurs with a shell more than eight feet long. Its skeleton is on display at Harvard's Agassiz Museum, and replicas of it can be found at New York's American Museum of Natural History and several other venues around the country. Wood inherited an interest in natural history from his father, Albert Wood '30, an emeritus professor of biology at Amherst College. (The senior Wood, who is 93, lives in Cape May Court House, a few miles from the Wetlands Institute, where he regularly attends presentations by visiting scientists. In June, accompanied by his son, he drove up to Princeton for his 71st reunion and rode with the Old Guard in the P-rade.)

Roger Wood has been studying diamondbacks and writing about them for scientific journals since the early 1970s, not long after he arrived at Stockton, and much of what we know about the species comes from his research. In the early days he collaborated with an octogenarian waterman named Earl Yearicks, who caught diamondbacks and sold them to a seafood wholesaler, who in turn sold them live to venerable restaurants like Bookbinder's, in Philadelphia, for rendering into terrapin soup. Before the turtles were shipped off, Wood would collect baseline data on sex, size, and distinctive markings. "Mr. Yearicks never got past sixth grade," recalls Wood, "and I was pleased that he let me to list him as coauthor of the first paper I wrote on diamondbacks."

The diamondback turtle or terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin, lives in brackish coastal waters from Massachusetts to Texas. Of the world's approximately 270 turtle species, it is the only one adapted to a salt-marsh environment. Females, which grow to a length of six to nine inches (males top out at five inches), typically lay a clutch of eight to 12 eggs in a chamber five to six inches deep scooped out by their hind legs. The diamondback's jaws are made for feeding on a variety of small mussels, clams, and snails. They will also eat small fish and are especially fond of fiddler crabs. In the winter they hibernate, either burying themselves in mud or lying in a dormant state on the bottom of marsh creeks.

Epicurean delight

In Colonial times, diamondbacks were abundant and a routine part of the diet of tidewater settlers. Wood cites an account of slaves going on a hunger strike until promised something else to eat (in similar stories about stipulations in the contracts of indentured servants, the offending fare is lobster, salmon, or shad). After terrapin soup became a staple of gourmet restaurants in the late 19th century, unregulated commercial hunting drove the species to the brink of extinction. As Wood wrote in a scientific paper, epicures "considered diamondbacks to be the ultimate treat for cultured palates. Pound for pound, diamondbacks were unquestionably the most expensive meat in the world" -- on the market, a dozen prime females could fetch $125. He believes the species was saved in part by the coming of Prohibition, which made sherry, the other key ingredient in terrapin soup, unavailable, and by a further reduction in demand brought on by the Great Depression.

"My dad was born and raised here in Cape May County," said Wood. "As a boy he spent a lot of time sailing in the bays, and he can't recall ever seeing a terrapin. When I was a kid spending summers here in the '40s and '50s I didn't see them, either. We didn't really start noticing them until the 1960s. I think they had been coming back for a while, but during the early decades of their recovery they stayed out of sight because there were still plenty of natural nesting areas on the back dunes of barrier islands. By the '60s and '70s turtle numbers were back up, but by then the shore towns were pretty well developed, and the bulldozing and bulkheading of nesting sites forced them up onto the causeways."

And into the paths of motorists hell-bent for the beach. On average, some 500 diamondbacks are crunched by cars in Cape May County each year, and throughout the turtle's range fatalities number in the many thousands. Even more may drown in commercial crab traps -- Wood lobbies for laws requiring traps fitted with turtle excluders; New Jersey and Maryland (where it is the state reptile) now require them, and he hopes other states will follow suit. Habitat destruction also remains a threat as the diamondback's natural breeding areas continue to succumb to development.
Wood's team rescues 600 to 800 eggs a year, of which 250 to 300 hatch. He estimates that, after six years, two out of three released hatchlings reach breeding age.

Replacements don't add up to the numbers squashed, and the turtles may be headed for another population crash. Still, Wood continues to hope -- partially off-setting the loss of natural habitat, new breeding areas have been created by the pumping of dredge sands onto march islands -- and to do what he can to make people aware of the diamondback's plight. His advice to shore-bound drivers: "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."
Jim Merritt is a former editor of PAW and a freelance writer living in Pennington, N.J.

For more on the Terrapin Rescue Project, a joint undertaking of the Wetlands Institute and Richard Stockton College, visit the Web site www.wetlandsinstitute.org or call 609-368-1211.