Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Terrapin Project Reveals Strong Numbers, Cautious Outlook

On most summer mornings the last two years, a small boat motored into the Georgia marsh with researchers, nets and high hopes on board. In small tidal creeks, the researchers spent hours in the murky water, dragging seines and struggling through the soft mud. Often their work was rewarded with catches of small, colorful turtles – diamondback terrapins.

Now, University of Georgia graduate student Andrew Grosse is analyzing data from more than 1,500 turtles recorded in the State Wildlife Grant project aimed at assessing Georgia’s diamondback terrapin populations, the first such study. Early indications are that the species is abundant.

“Habitat loss due to increased urbanization is a leading cause of decline for this species, and Georgia has one of the most undeveloped coastlines within the range of the diamondback terrapin, so that’s good news for these turtles,” said Grosse, leader of the joint UGA and Georgia Department of Natural Resources project.

Mark Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, sees the project as “the beginning of a long-term monitoring program designed to assess the status of diamondback terrapins and the health of Georgia’s estuaries.”

Terrapins are the only North American turtle species that spend their lives in estuary or salt marsh habitat – the area between the mainland and barrier islands. Found along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, they are an indicator species for the habitat and the ecosystem because they are at the top of the food chain.

Grosse said many people don’t even know the turtles are in Georgia. “Everyone, from tourists just visiting for the weekend to permanent residents, should first realize that there are turtles that live on the coast other than sea turtles, and that we all can potentially have both positive and negative impacts on this species.”

One negative is traffic: Many female terrapins are run over crossing roads to reach egg-laying sites. More than 300 turtles were killed on roadways last year. The study looked specifically at impacts from commercial crabbing and road-related mortality.

Grosse's team tracked the number of turtles caught and re-caught to estimate the population for each location. Researchers also recorded the weight, length, sex and age of each terrapin – they can live as long as 20 years. The analysis covered 26 randomly picked sites in creeks and other waterways along the Georgia coast, ensuring an accurate representation of the turtle’s habitat range. Each site was surveyed five times.

The study addressed two primary questions: How many terrapins are there in Georgia and what impact are people and development having on them? State Wildlife Grant projects focus on species in relation to their role within a habitat or ecosystem.

Diamondback terrapins were once harvested for food all along the eastern coast of the U.S. The Cloister on Sea Island was known for its terrapin soup. Turtles were heavily collected from the Hampton River area, with the terrapin industry peaking after the Civil War.

Harvesting the turtles for food has since gone out of style and is illegal under state law. Mortality is now more likely attributed to collisions on roads or entrapment in commercial crab pots.

But even though the project’s preliminary results point to abundant terrapin numbers, considering the outlook, Grosse urged awareness of these unique turtles.

“I would like people to realize that although this species may seem abundant in Georgia, it is in decline in many of the other regions throughout its range. As the Georgia coast continues to be developed, it is inevitable that diamondback terrapins … will be exposed to increased habitat loss and urbanization in the near future.”

Georgians who buy a wildlife license plate featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird help conserve diamondback terrapins and other nongame wildlife, native plants and natural habitats. The license plate sales are vital to the Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section. The section receives no state funds for its mission to help conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats in Georgia.

The plates are available for a one-time $25 fee at county tag offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registrations and through online renewals (http://mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags).

Visit www.georgiawildlife.com for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).

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