Turtles should fear crossing Route 1

Terrapins are risking their lives to get to the other side to lay eggs.

June 10, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

DEWEY BEACH, Del. -- Like many of us this time of year, diamondback terrapins have a one-track mind: Beat the traffic, get to the ocean, claim a spot in the sand.

It's the-beating-the-traffic part that never seems to work out for the reptiles.

Every year, dozens of terrapins die as they try to cross Route 1 going from their homes in the marshes of Rehoboth Bay to the high sand dunes along the Atlantic Ocean. Determined wildlife officials tried at first to stop them with fences. Now, they're trying to coax them to stay put by making their bayside digs more comfortable.

The turtles have their reasons for crossing the road. Many are pregnant females, their orange shells full of eggs. They like to lay their eggs oceanside because the high dunes make good habitat. Then, they and their hatchlings come back home to the bay side, where they can mate again in the marshes alongside Route 1.

However, the slow and steady pace of the terrapin is no match for the zooming automobile. Last year, 68 terrapins died in transit during the June-July nesting season. The year before, it was a whopping 140, the highest number on record.

"It's a species that evolved long before there were cars. The road is not going to stop them -- they're just going to go across," said Chris Bennett, a natural resources specialist with the state. "Until a car runs over them, they don't know what it is."

The nesting season coincides with prime beach time, and the Route 1 traffic from both turtles and vacationers is constant. Adult females will reproduce for 20 years -- up to 36 eggs a year if they live. And, while the females can grow up to 9 inches long, males are about half that size, making them even harder to see on a busy roadway.

With the turtles unwilling to change their habits, and motorists unable to swerve in time to avoid them, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control decided to try a forced detour. Last year, workers put up fences along the bay side of Route 1 to stop the terrapins from crossing. But, the hard-wired reptiles slipped through the wooden slats.

The department then covered the fences, but some turtles managed to climb over.

This year, the department had a new idea: If the turtles found the high dunes and soft sand they coveted on the bay side, biologists reasoned, they might be content to stay there and not venture across the road.

So far, workers have delivered 900 tons of sand to a marshy spot behind the Old Inlet Bait and Tackle Shop about a mile south of Dewey Beach to create about a quarter of an acre of habitat, a terrapin condo of sorts.

At $15,000, the terrapin digs are a lot less expensive than many of the beach houses dotting the shores of Rehoboth and Dewey. And, the place has proved its use as a timeshare for other wildlife; gulls have already staked their perch atop the dunes.

Whether the new dunes will keep the turtles from their perilous crossing is still an open question. Nesting season just started this week, and already three terrapins were found dead in the road. One was the worst kind of turtle casualty--a pregnant female, her broken eggs scattered across the asphalt.

Bennett caught at least two more female terrapins attempting to cross the road this week. One was in the dunes but slid off, dropped about 12 feet to the ground and then headed for Route 1. Bennett spotted her stuck in the fence and carried her back to the dunes in a box marked "Fragile-handle with care."

He and biologist Erin Frazer measured the turtle and chiseled a series of notches into her shell so they would recognize her if they found her again. Frazer, who has ridden her bike along the highway looking for crossing terrapins, said she thinks the experiment will work.

"It will help give them some quality nesting habitat. We'll be monitoring it to make sure," she said.

Diamondback terrapins are not officially considered endangered in Maryland or Delaware. Their lot improved somewhat when turtle soup, long considered a delicacy, began disappearing from most fine restaurant menus. But the turtles still face loss of habitat because of beachfront development and have been known to nest in dangerous places, such as driveways and parking lots.

In Maryland, where the terrapin is the official state reptile, Terrapin Institute founder Marguerite Whilden predicts the turtle condo will work. The former state employee, who was known as the "turtle lady" for the education programs she ran, has found terrapins crossing Route 50 and moved them to safety.

"I've picked them up along the road, and I bring them to a nice sandy beach, and they nest immediately," she said. "You can't say they're on some perpetual, ancient path. The urge can be disrupted."

Bennett advises motorists who encounter the turtles to carry the reptiles to where they seem to be headed -- if the driver can safely stop. But that can be an impractical suggestion, as traffic on Route 1 is nearly as hazardous to human pedestrians as it is to slow-moving turtles.

At Delaware Seashore State Park, visitors often bring in terrapins they find on the side of the road. Ask office worker Carolyn Willey whether she or a park patron has ever run over a terrapin, and she shudders.

"No, thank goodness," she said. "We'd have to have a funeral."

But her colleague, Peg Love, had a close encounter with a terrapin just a few hours earlier. On her way to work, Love spotted one as she was driving on Route 1. She couldn't stop -- "traffic was on my heels" -- but when she got to her office, she notified natural resources officials that it was there.

Love can't help but wonder whether the terrapin made it.

"I've been known to get out and put them where they're supposed to go," she said. "Not that they stay there, but at least I feel better."

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