Terrapin tale has ecological message

Children's book is designed to inform kids about turtles and environmental issues

September 27, 2006|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ecological message part of terrapin tale

Rascal, a one-year-old terrapin, stretches his neck out while he suns himself on a rock, his mouth turned upward in what appears to be a permanent grin. The small turtle lives up to his name, hurriedly scampering away from his owner's reach.

"Turtles have great personalities," said Jennifer Keats Curtis, 37, Rascal's owner. "They're not shy, and they're fast."

Curtis, a freelance writer in Arnold, hopes to educate children about the diamondback terrapin in her new book, Turtles in My Sandbox. The book, about a girl who finds terrapin eggs in her sandbox, covers the turtle's life cycle and outlines in simple terms why pollution and development are threatening the turtle's sandy nesting ground and Chesapeake Bay habitat.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's Anne Arundel edition should have said that Jennifer Keats Curtis will donate part of the royalties from her new book, Turtles in My Sandbox, to the Terrapin Institute. The book is based on the "Turtles in the Classroom" program started by Marguerite Whilden of the Terrapin Institute and now run by the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERRORS

Curtis -- and Rascal -- will promote the book in schools, and the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute will maintain a related Web site with the help of a $10,000 state grant. The Web site, www.terrapin book.com, should be up by next week.

Children who can see how their actions affect the environment will protect it when they grow up, said Rebecca Bell, an environmental education specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education. Curtis contacted Bell to find out how the book could be integrated into lesson plans. The education department is now working with the institute on the Web site.

"What we want is for kids to understand that the health of the environment impacts their own health," she said. Curtis plans to donate 30 percent of the book's proceeds to the Terrapin Institute, a nonprofit in Edgewater dedicated to preserving the terrapin and its habitat.

Curtis donated $15,000 from sales of her last book, which was about oysters, to the Severn River Association. The book, Oshus and Shelly Save the Bay, won the Frederick Douglass Award from the Maryland Council of Teachers of English Language Arts. The Severn River Association used the money for school programs to raise oysters to repopulate the bay.

Turtles in My Sandbox is intended for children ages 4 to 8, but the text is a little more difficult and probably works better for children at least 7 years old, Curtis said. The book has been fact-checked by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the UM biotechnology institute and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The book is based on the biotechnology institute's popular "Turtles in the Classroom" program, which distributes baby terrapins to schools to raise and release. Last year, the turtles, which are the size of quarters when they are born, were sent to 25 schools, said Jeff Morgen, an education specialist with the institute's Science and Technology Education Program. They were released at the end of the school year, which gives the young turtles a year of protected development before they face predators, he said.

Researchers who are studying the turtles cull them for classrooms, so Morgen is not sure how many will be distributed this year. Some schools have to wait up to a year to get a turtle, he said.

Although the terrapin is not considered an endangered species, the population has been declining, said Morgen, who is a marine biologist. Researchers are trying to document the turtle population to see if the turtles are being overfished. It will take several years to find out if the population needs tighter management, he said. Although female turtles can lay eggs twice a year, it takes at least eight years for turtles to reach breeding age.

Curtis' two daughters, Madison and Maxine, attend Broadneck Elementary School. Madison, 9, is one of the eager fourth-graders who will care for the school's baby terrapin this year. Last year's class raised a terrapin and released it at Poplar Island in May.

Pupils will be able to enter information about their turtle's progress on the Web site throughout the year. This will help those pupils who don't have the opportunity to witness a turtle's development firsthand. Pupils also will be able to submit questions to marine biologists.

Children can identify pandas and other exotic animals readily, but they should know more about the creatures closer to them, Curtis said.

"When you're small, you probably think there isn't a lot you can do to help," Curtis said. She wants that to change.

Local schools and organizations can request a visit by Curtis by sending an e-mail to jcurtis@cablespeed.com.

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