The Savannah Morning News
SAVANNAH — Searching the shoulder of U.S. 80, Andrew Neidlinger is on the hunt for something he’d rather not find: injured and dead diamondback terrapins.
These small turtles, the only American species that lives in brackish water, are nesting now. The highway’s shoulder, with its higher temperature, open canopy and soft soil make a tempting spot for the females to lay eggs. But many never make it that far.
“It’s terrible right now. They’re smashed all over the place,” said veterinarian Lesley Mailler, who assists with injured turtles as part of the Terrapin Educational Research Program of Savannah program.
Started and still run by Armstrong Atlantic State University alumnus Jordan Gray, who’s now a keeper at the Houston Zoo, the TERPS network brings together students and professionals to protect and study diamondback terrapins.
Gray keeps an active hand from a distance, even taking a call recently from a woman who rescued an injured terrapin on Diamond Causeway.
Mailler, the veterinarian at Oatland Island Wildlife Center, is looking to get a few more vets involved in assisting the turtles. So far she’s tended to just one injured terrapin this season. She used Bondo, the auto body repair product, to fix its injured shell.
But she’s afraid the caseload could increase.
“They’re all over the road; it’s just crazy,” said Mailler, who lives on Tybee and so drives U.S. 80 regularly.
Neidlinger, a biology student at Armstrong, volunteers with TERPS.
As has been the case since nesting season began at the start of June, Neidlinger on a recent evening spotted only dead turtles on the way out to Tybee, three juveniles and an adult females. He documents the injured and dead terrapins, recovering viable eggs for incubation whenever possible.
He and fellow biology student Cammie Allen also had a cheerier mission that day.
They released four young terrapins they had cared for at the lab at Armstrong.
The babies, three hatched in October and a fourth wild foundling, were about the size of a half dollar. They swam into the river at the Fort Pulaski bridge, one burrowing into the mud and another popping a curious head up to spy its benefactors one last time.
The students also brought along their “ambassador,” Cleopatra, an especially beautiful adult female terrapin from the lab. Standing on the shoulder of 80 with her as cars whip by at 60 mph or more, it was clear that a turtle’s attempt to cross the highway is a daunting proposition.
Terrapins are not federally protected but are listed by Georgia as a “species of concern.” Along with females hit by cars, males and juveniles, both smaller than adult females, get caught in poorly tended crab traps and drown, sometimes by the dozens.
Nationally, and locally the TERPS program fears, terrapins are in decline. On 80 they occur most frequently in the five-mile stretch between the Lazaretto Creek bridge and the Bull River bridge, with particular hot spots around Fort Pulaski and just east of the Bull River bridge.
“These terrapins are crossing the roads, and we need people to slow down, be aware and look out for these turtles,” Neidlinger said. “If at all possible help them across the road in the same orientation they were facing.”
Turtles’ nesting coincides with high tides both day and night, Neidlinger said, especially when it rains. The turtles had ideal conditions for nesting earlier this month and considering the tide and moon phases, peak nesting possibilities are again through June 29.