Diamondback terrapin nest found on Loop

by Daniel Bowden
Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Staff photo by Eileen Veihmeyer

A diamondback terrapin was seen laying eggs last week in this location on the Loop near the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.

Turtle nesting season continues to see more activity as a new nest has been discovered on Wrightsville Beach. This one is not a sea turtle nest. Nancy Fahey of the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project received several calls on June 18 from concerned Loop walkers who observed a small turtle laying eggs along the side of Salisbury Street, not far from the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.

Upon arrival, Fahey found a small patch of disturbed soil, and quickly placed a call to alderman Bill Sisson, who made the necessary arrangements to rope off the area.

"Our main concern was the location," Fahey said. "Next to the sidewalk as it was, the nest would have been trampled by running feet in no time."

After some research, Fahey concluded that the only type of turtle that inhabits the nearby brackish salt marshes is the diamondback terrapin. Sarah Finn of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission confirmed her conclusion the next day.

The diamondback terrapin was considered a delicacy to eat in the early 1900s, and was hunted almost to extinction. Today, it is classified as a species of concern in North Carolina due to the number of turtles that drown in crab traps every year.

Fahey explained there is a great deal of interest in the diamondback terrapin because researchers know theyíre numbers are in decline. University of North Carolina Wilmington currently has a team of researchers studying the species.

Diamondback terrapins have one of the largest ranges of all North American turtles, stretching from the tip of Florida to Cape Cod, though they stick primarily to small strips of salt marshes along the coast. This unique, not quite freshwater but not quite saltwater type of environment is constantly threatened by construction and ocean level rise.

The nest is currently marked off with stakes and tape, but due to the unusually long incubation process of the species ó between 61 and 104 days ó Fahey is currently working with town officials to decide the best course of action regarding the nestís safety. She believes it is unlikely they will excavate it.

"We hope that people will be aware and respect the nest," Fahey said.

The length of incubation for diamondback terrapins is temperature dependent, and if itís cold when the turtles hatch they may stay underground for even longer.

As for the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project, there have been no new nests since the first one was discovered near Public Beach Access No. 40 on June 7. Fahey expressed disappointment, but remains optimistic as the nesting season runs up until Aug. 31. She also noted that last summer volunteers hadnít found a si ngle nest until mid-July, when they found three nests in three days.

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