by Jennifer Keats Curtis
Some years ago, my daughter’s 3rd grade classroom shared space with two tiny turtles in tanks. These diamondback terrapin hatchlings were part of an authentic research project with an Ohio University professor and the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) Environmental Literacy & Outdoor Education Program in Maryland. Baby turtles are placed with teachers in classrooms for the school year to get a ‘headstart,’ meaning they will grow throughout the winter to help increase their survivorship, explains Melanie Parker, Coordinator of Environmental Literacy and Outdoor Education. In May, some students and teachers help release those headstarted turtles on Poplar Island, a restored island in the Chesapeake Bay. My admiration for this extraordinary program, and the dedicated teachers, kids, and scientists involved, became the basis of Turtles In My Sandbox. This realistic fiction follows Maggie and her mom who raise and release terrapin hatchlings very much like the teachers and kids of Maryland’s terrapin headstart program.
In keeping with my current theme that science doesn’t end just because a book has been published, I was invited to the latest teacher terrapin orientation, (Ok, I invited myself; but they still let me in.) I wanted to know how the program had progressed and what had changed since the book was published.
Despite cold and rain, 86 teachers cheerfully bounded into a conference room at AACPS’s Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center. “At the teacher in-service, for our returning teachers, all anybody cares about is seeing if their turtle has been recaptured, it’s a highlight of the evening!” laughs Melanie, “They come to hear that and to pick up their babies.”
As the first in-person in-service since the pandemic, Melanie, and Teacher Specialist Amy Greif, were most excited about seeing the babies head out to their new homes, but also thrilled that 21 new teachers had signed up to adopt a terrapin.
The now named TERP (Terrapin Education Research Partnership), is a standalone program, based on teacher interest. Every teacher can’t have a turtle because there are not enough turtles and not enough permits. “Plus,” says Melanie, “the commitment is not small.” Teachers sign an agreement to “ensure their care and follow the protocols of the research project,” explains Amy, “Data on terrapins are collected by the students each month and input into a database for use by the researchers. It brings authentic research to the classroom. Students are active participants in gathering data – ‘real’ research – connecting them to the turtles and environment around them.”
This unique research program and cohorts include Dr. Willem Roosenburg of Ohio University, the lead researcher, and partners
: The Maryland Port Authority, Maryland Environmental Services, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and a veterinarian from Greater Annapolis Medical Hospital. Further, as part of this collaborative partnership, the National Aquarium, Calvert County Public School and Prince George’s County Public School educators also raise terrapins as part of the collaboration with Dr. Roosenburg. The National Aquarium is the only partner that can offer the experience to schools across the state. They have changed their application process, though. Because the demand is so high, teachers can get turtles for two years and then they must go to the bottom of the list to give other educators a chance to participate.
During the pandemic, when schools shut down in March, Amy worked with the DNR so that teachers could bring all 84 turtles to Arlington Echo, where they could be vetted, tagged, and safely released in early April. (All turtles are tagged via a passive integrative tag (PIT), much like the microchip injected into cats and dogs, to allow for individual identification and tracking.) In 2021, teachers could not house terps in their classrooms. Instead, a virtual link for two hatchlings in a tank was live streamed on camera. (This tradition will continue for those who do not have turtles at their schools.)
Media specialist Sarah Bigelow is in her 9th year of the program. “We’re a turtle loving family,” she says, “I love it even though it can be a lot of work, cleaning the tank, measuring out food each day, and taking it home over breaks in case of power outages in the school building. It’s all worth it when you see that speckled little face peering at you through the glass.”
Sarah’s first terps, she proudly remembers, were Cruiser (named for the Baltimore Orioles player Nelson Cruz) and Peanut, because he was so tiny. By late winter, the students and I noticed Cruiser was growing but Peanut was not. As part of the data collected, the students measure and record the length and width of the turtles.
As it turned out, Cruiser was aggressively biting Peanut over food. Sarah had to place a screen in the tank to divide the two and suddenly “Peanut started eating and growing.” That rivalry is one of the main reasons teachers are now limited to one turtle per school. “When there were two in a tank, they nipped and bit each other and several ended up in our hospital tank,” explains Melanie.
Sidebar: Naming the turtle babies is a BIG deal. While teachers have their own criteria, at Jones Elementary, Sarah asks her students to observe for a week, noting physical and character traits. Traits of the turtle dictate the name. After a week, students place confidential suggestions in a terp decorated box. During “turtle time,” the dedicated time for turtle-related lessons, Sarah pulls out all the names to find the top three. Students vote with a show of hands. (And, no picking your friend’s choice, she reminds them, pick the name you want.)
While kids and adults clearly love this program, the goal is specific and important—Is terrapin headstarting beneficial? Dr. Roosenburg and his graduate students are specifically researching the headstarted vs wild terrapins to determine if this conservation strategy is viable.
Dr. Roosenburg’s work, which all takes place on Poplar Island—terrapin monitoring, nest surveying and catch and release—can only be described as laborious.
From May through July, Dr. Roosenburg and his team search for nests (289 were found in 2022). In the sandy nest, the team first checks the color of the eggs. If they are pink, they’ve been laid within 24 hours. They are carefully counted and gently placed back in the nest. (In Turtles In My Sandbox, Maggie finds pink eggs, clearly, they were laid not long before she found them!) A screen may be placed on top of the eggs to keep away hungry crows. If the eggs are white and chalky, that nest is older than 24 hours and is marked and flagged. The scientists won’t dig because of the danger of damaging the membrane and harming the terrapin.
While I knew mother terrapins laid about 13 eggs, what was new to me was that they can lay three clutches 15 days apart and it might only take her 20 minutes. Peak laying time is 10 am-2pm, the time of day that best warms body temperature.
During those hot summer days, Dr. Roosenburg and his students use fyke nets and turtle traps to catch turtles and determine if they are part of the headstarted turtles, control group or wild population.
Now in its 19th year, Dr. Roosenburg’s research shows that this conservation strategy for terrapins is working. The headstarted terps grow faster than wild terps and headstarted terps can lay eggs up to two years earlier.
As of April of this year, 3,001 terrapins have been released on Poplar Island and many teachers have proudly seen their recaptures. Dr. Roosenburg’s Facebook page is dedicated to providing information about the program and specifically naming those turtles who have been recaptured and which teacher raised them, https://www.facebook.com/roosenburglab/. (I’m not naming names here, folks, except for elementary school teacher Mary Ann Perret, one of the longest turtle stewards in the program and whose name frequently comes up with those recaptured turtles.)
To me, one of the most special aspects of the headstart program is that kids have the opportunity to learn, hands on, what it’s like to temporarily care for a wild animal, to nurture it and help it grow for a time and then release it back into the wild.
Teacher Sarah Bigelow put it best: While the terrapin becomes part of our classroom, we keep our minds on the fact that we are not keeping this turtle. We don’t talk to it or take it out of the tank and play with her. Would you want to live your whole life in a tank? We are helping this turtle live the life she is supposed to live. That said, she smiled and added one small qualifier: Look, I’m the turtle’s foster mom for the year so it’s even hard for me to see them released. (We won’t tell the kids she said that.)
For more information and to buy Turtles In My Sandbox, https://www.arbordalepublishing.com/bookpage.php?id=Sandbox
To review Dr. Roosenburg’s work, https://www.facebook.com/roosenburglab/
To request a school visit, contact JKC at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message through Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Green-Author-Jennifer-Keats-Curtis-JKC-247737274654/) or Twitter (@JenniferKCurtis).
Baby terrapins awaiting adoption after teacher in-service at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center. Baby terrapin in Jones Elementary School’s media center. (Name not yet selected!) Baby terrapin to be transported to Jones Elementary School. (L-R. Teachers Meredith Simpkins of Ruth Parker Eason School and Sarah Bigelow of Jones Elementary School with their new “babies.”