Shellmates Among The Stacks
By: Alex Scofield
Hyperactive turtles? A pair of juvenile diamondback terrapins temporarily residing at the Sandwich Public Library fit the bill, and they are proving to be a big draw.
More than 100 people came to a “meet the turtles” event at the library two weeks ago, the formal introduction for the terrapins who moved in two months ago. It is a far cry from their humble beginnings in a nest by a road on Sandy Neck. A concerned scientist took the eggs and hatched them in an incubator; the turtles that hatched are now part of a “head start” program to increase their odds of surviving to adulthood.
The terrapins will remain at the library until their release, likely in late May.
At about 18 months of age, the turtles have already grown to a size they would not reach in the wild for four years. That has much to do with the fact that, unlike their kin in the wild, they can grow year-round indoors and do not hibernate in the winter. Far from it. At a time of year that their relatives are buried in the mud of a salt marsh, the library’s pair seem to be on overdrive.
“These two that we have are extremely active. You have to see them to believe them, ” said the turtles’ primary caregiver, Children’s Librarian Stuart W. Parsons. “If you’ve got a bubble in the water, they attack it. …They’re real predators.”
In the wild, they are also prey. Diamondback terrapins were once on the brink of extinction, Mr. Parsons said. Diamondbacks have a delectable taste to many humans, and, a century ago, they were considered the holy grail for turtle soup. “They were harvested by the barrelful all the way up the coast,” Mr. Parsons said. “That’s basically what led to their near extinction.”
Diamondback terrapins remain a threatened species in Massachusetts, which is at the northern edge of their habitat. A license is required to raise them, and Mr. Parsons is certified by the Town of Barnstable Natural Resources Office, which regulates a terrapin “head start” program. Under this program, Mr. Parsons said, juvenile terrapins are raised until they “get too big for predators to eat easily. …They’re not as likely to be gobbled up as an hors d’oeuvre,” Mr. Parsons said.
Absent human intervention, the library’s turtles would have hatched at Sandy Neck, if at all. Their mother built a nest so close to a roadway that its location posed an even greater threat than natural predators. (Even in optimal circumstances, Mr. Parsons said, only about 20 percent of the eggs in a diamondback terrapin nest end up hatching.) Raising the turtles to the age of about 2 is now the goal of Mr. Parsons and all the others who raise diamondback terrapins through the program.
“You enhance their survivorship immensely by making them bigger,” Mr. Parsons continued.
As licensed caretaker, Mr. Parsons must adhere to a strict protocol. He maintains the water at 75 degrees, and feeds the turtles specialty reptile food every other day. However strict the guidelines are, they are not labor-intensive.
“That [tank] is unbelievably simple to maintain,” Mr. Parsons said. “I’ve only had to do a simple scrubbing, without changing the water.”
The guidelines for terrapin caretakers evolved over time. Mr. Parsons, also a naturalist who raised terrapins at Green Briar Nature Center in East Sandwich more than a decade ago, was once required to dump the turtle food without showing his face to them. The concern at the time was that turtles accustomed to seeing humans would lose the adaptive habits necessary to survive in the wild. Only after years of observation and tracking released turtles did scientists conclude that the turtles that saw human faces fared just as well as the ones that were sequestered.
Unlike Rocky Balboa’s pet turtles Cuff and Link, the ones at the library have no permanent names. As of the Enterprise’s press deadline, they were Teeny and Tiny, but their names change every five days. Two weeks ago, children suggested 25 name-pairs, including Spots and Speckles, Daisy and Rose, and Freckles and Sandy. Through the name-by-committee process, Mr. Parsons calculates each suggestion will be used by the time the terrapins are released.
There is a formidable challenge in naming the turtles—their genders are unknown. Until terrapins reach maturity, there is no visible difference between males or females, Mr. Parsons said. A terrapin’s sex is determined by the temperature at a critical period in egg development, so whether male or female, the fact that they were hatched in an incubator means they are likely the same sex.
Mr. Parsons hopes that, come May, Teeny and Tiny will be released with the same fanfare that surrounded the meet-and-greet two weeks ago. In the ensuing four months, he expects the terrapins will entertain visitors, and educate them as well.
“It just gives you another reason to be careful when you’re around the marsh,” Mr. Parsons said.
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