Scientists work to keep Terrapin turtle off endangered species list

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Washington, September 23 (ANI): University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) researchers, exploring strategies for conserving the Diamondback Terrapin along Alabama's Dauphin Island coastline, are working to keep the once-celebrated turtle off the endangered species list.

The Diamondback Terrapin has been a delicacy, a source of state taxes and a casualty of commercial development and victim of new predators, but now its prospects are improved by a UAB-based turtle hatchery that may accelerate the growth of the fledgling population.

In 2006, a UAB research team began its examination of conservation and recovery strategies for the Diamondback Terrapin in Alabama.

After three years, biology professors Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., and Ken Marion, Ph.D., and doctoral student Andy Coleman concluded that the species was fighting for survival.

"This spring we began the captive rearing of the terrapin, opening up a hatchery at UAB," Coleman said.

"With almost each weekly trip to Dauphin Island, we return to Birmingham with a new clutch of eggs. If we did not rescue them, raccoons would destroy as many as 90 percent of the eggs nesting naturally along the wetland beaches," he added.

Commercial growth in the Dauphin Island area in recent decades has constricted the turtle population's habitat.

New predators like raccoons and threats like crab traps also have been introduced into the environment.

All of these factors have driven the animals to near-endangered species status, and losing the species could badly damage the local ecosystem by throwing the food chain out of whack.

Terrapin are voracious snail eaters who use their strong jaws to break through snail shells.

"Our work along the Cedar Point marsh on Dauphin Island started with research into the threats posed by natural predators and man-made devices like crab traps, which can catch the turtles and lead to drowning," Wibbels said.

Wibbels said that the early research efforts showed a population on the brink, a view confirmed in the 2004 Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resource's book Alabama Wildlife, in which the Diamondback terrapin was listed as a highest conservation concern.

Wibbels said the research quickly moved into its next phase: ecovery of the terrapin population. Coleman, Wibbels and Marion identified strategies for decreasing predation and began field testing terrapin excluder devices (TEDs) on crab traps to protect the turtle population from becoming ensnared in the traps.

Coleman said that increasing the turtle population is as important as reducing habitat threats. (ANI)

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