Another reason to slow down on Route 1

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays both post signs warning drivers to be more alert to diamondback terrapins crossing Route 1 between Dewey and Bethany Beach, but the highway is still often marred with the remnants of turtles struck by cars.

Why did the turtle cross the road?

The 2015 Delaware Wildlife Action Plan involved three years of preparation by DNREC’s Fish and Wildlife Division. It names diamondback terrapins as a “species of greatest conservation need” in Delaware and rates them as tier 2, meaning their conservation needs are second only to Bog and Spotted turtles.

“Diamondback terrapins, once a seasonal food item across Delmarva, are no longer routinely trapped for food, but continue to face beach development, bulkheading and traffic as major threats to their breeding areas,” the report states.

The diamondback terrapin species lives in brackish waters like the Rehoboth and Indian River bays. Every year around this time, the females leave the water to lay eggs, ideally in a sandy area with some plant coverage. Those areas are shrinking in the Inland Bays where, in many places, bulkhead and riprap, or large rocks, have been installed to prevent erosion. Female turtles coming out of the bay see beach dunes as best for nesting, but getting to those dunes requires crossing treacherous Route 1.

Delaware Center for the Inland Bays Communications Specialist Kate Goerger said the number of diamondbacks being hit by cars is concerning.

“There’s so much habitat destruction in our area,” she said. “The [eggs] have no chance unless the female crosses the highway to get to the dunes. You can coax them to lay eggs on the bayside where there might be some beach, but that’s not what their instincts tell them to do. If a female gets hit, you lose not just her, but all her future offspring.”

Turtle eggs and their hatchlings are referred to as clutches. Mature diamondback terrapin females usually produce one to three clutches a year, and each clutch usually contains eight to 12 eggs. The gender of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the nest – higher temperatures produce females, while lower temperatures produce males. Nests with mid-range temperatures produce mixed-sex clutches.

Efforts to help

Both DNREC and the Center for the Inland Bays are making efforts to keep the turtles from being crushed while crossing Route 1 and other highways across the state.

DNREC put fencing in place between the bay and Route 1 between Dewey and Bethany in 2003 and makes repairs annually, resulting in visibly fewer dead turtles. Occasionally, however, fences are damaged or turtles find ways to get past them. DNREC has also teamed up with the Delaware Department of Transportation at Port Mahon, on the coast of Kent County, on two experimental tunnels to allow the turtles to safely cross the road.

The Center for the Inland Bays stresses that rebuilding living shorelines is necessary for the conservation of diamondback terrapins and other places. A living shoreline is a method of stabilization that uses natural materials, rather than bulkhead or riprap. It absorbs wave energy, rather than reflecting it.

“In areas like ours that are being quickly built up and need more natural habitats, we’re trying to convince people to take a more natural approach,” said the Center’s Katie Goerger.

Living shorelines benefit not only wildlife, but property values.

“They prevent erosion not just on the property they’re on but on surrounding properties, because they absorb wave energy,” Goerger said, “Whereas bulkhead reflects it out and onto other properties.”

The Center for the Inland Bays’ Indian River Inlet Marina office features a living shoreline model, made of sand, bags of oyster shells, live mussels and coir logs. The logs are made from coconut fibers and sink when wet. In Sussex County, living shorelines have been installed in Lewes, at the Indian River Marina and at Bethany Beach. More are being constructed.

“It’s prime for turtles and horseshoe crabs. It can also provide habitat for songbirds, herons, egrets, that kind of thing,” Goerger said.

The Center for the Inland Bays hosts an annual workshop with DNREC to educate local contractors, bayfront landowners and anyone else who might be interested in a living shoreline.

Getting to the other side of the road

How can you keep diamondback terrapins from being crushed on the highway? It’s simple: pull over, pick them up, and put them on the other side.

What’s not so simple is identifying the species of turtle once you’ve encountered it, and determining how to move it safely.

Diamondback terrapins are perfectly safe to pick up. Their necks are not long enough to bite and their back claws not long enough to scratch if you pick them up by either side of their shell. If you are bitten or scratched by a diamondback, the injuries are very minor.

You can identify diamondback terrapins by their gray skin and telltale black spots, seen on their head, neck, legs and tail. Older terrapins may have a yellowish edge on their shell around the areas where the body protrudes. The shells vary in color depending on age, mixing yellows, browns, blacks and grays. The shells also have visible divisions called scutes, which have circular markings.

Goerger said that, when picking up a diamondback terrapin, “She might freak out and wiggle around, but just hold onto her firmly and you’ll both be fine.”

Dropping a diamondback will cause injury to both the turtle and her eggs, so be sure to get a good grip. Also, avoid turning over the turtle, because that can cause the intestines to twist painfully. If you have to turn a turtle over, do it head to tail rather than side to side. In addition, never pick up a turtle by its tail.

One turtle you definitely don’t want to pick up is the snapping turtle, which will bite. Its neck extends much farther than one might expect. A snapping turtle has a dark gray, brown or black shell, a long tail, massive claws and is much bigger than a diamondback. Diamondback adults usually range between four and eight inches in diameter (though some females grow a bit larger), while a mature snapping turtle can measure anywhere from eight to 20 inches and sometimes more.

“It looks prehistoric,” Goerger said. “Many people say it looks like a dinosaur. If it looks like a dinosaur, stay away from it!”

A shovel will coax along a snapping turtle, she said.

Box turtles are also a commonly found turtle. They don’t have the gray skin and black spots like diamondbacks. While their shells can look similar to a diamondback’s to an untrained eye, box turtle shells are more dome-shaped. Box turtles are usually timid and recoil when approached. It’s safe to pick them up.

Most turtle species have small territories from which they rarely wander during their lifetime. If you see a turtle in the road, try to get it to the other side. Do not attempt to relocate it, as it will search out its home territory and likely be injured or killed in trying to do so.

For more information about diamondback terrapins and other turtles, visit inlandbays.org.