Diamondback Terrapin Rescue & Release
Coastal Georgia’s salt marshes are home to many Carolina diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin centrata). These turtles can live for 40 years and the females do not start nesting until they are seven to eight years old. Nesting occurs from May to July and the eggs incubate for 60-70 days before the quarter-sized hatchlings emerge.
Prior to the 1920s, diamondback terrapins were hunted to the brink of extinction in order to satisfy Americans’ appetite for wine-based turtle soup. During prohibition, however, the soup lost popularity and terrapin populations started to recover in some areas. Current threats to diamondback terrapins include habitat loss, vehicle strikes, and drowning in crab traps. Some US states are also exporting these turtles to the Asian market for turtle soup.
Nesting female terrapins search for high ground in order to lay their eggs above the high tide line. Asphalt causeways often provide such nesting grounds but many females are stuck by vehicles during their search. Male and female terrapins also scavenge on the bait left in crab traps. Once caught in these traps the turtles cannot escape and will drown. Diamondback terrapins are listed as an unusual species in Georgia and have no federal protection.
The Tybee Island Marine Science Center staff rescues and receives sick or injured adult and hatchling terrapins throughout the year. Most of these animals are then taken to local veterinarians or the Georgia Sea Turtle Center for treatment and release. When gravid females are killed by cars on the causeway, center staff members extract the eggs and transport them to Armstrong State University for incubation and subsequent release. Healthy hatchlings become part of our head start program that allows them to reach a larger size before release in order to reduce the chance of predation.
Lastly, we offer Terrapin Excluder Devices made for crab traps to the public at no cost.
Marine Mammal Stranding Network
Many marine mammals live off of the coast of Georgia but the most common is the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates). The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) and North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) are also seasonally in the area.
The Tybee Island Marine Science Center is a member of the national Marine Mammal Stranding Network. We respond to stranded marine mammals, both dead and alive, under the direction of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR).
When responding to a deceased animal, staff will retrieve the animal and either secure it for GADNR pick up or take tissue and teeth samples along with photographs and physiological data, which is then sent to GADNR. When responding to a live stranding, staff will confirm the animal’s location and inform GADNR of the situation. We will then stay with the animal until GADNR staff arrives. We haven’t yet had a live stranding that needed to be retrieved; thus far our only live stranding has been a manatee stuck in a tide pool, which we simply waited out with the animal.
Birds along the Georgia coast encounter many threats to their survival including human-caused ones like cars, domestic predators (dogs and cats), fishing line, and trash.
Island visitors frequently come across sick, injured, or nestling/fledgling birds. The Tybee Island Science Center receives or retrieves these birds and then transports them to a local vet or rehabilitation center for care. Science center staff encourages people to attempt to re-nest young birds that may have fallen from their nest. Adults will often find the baby even if it is not in the exact same spot as the original nest and the young are better off with their parents than at a rehabilitation center.
Tybee Sea Turtle Project
The Tybee Sea Turtle Project is a conservation program of the Tybee Island Marine Science Center and member of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative. Project volunteers protect the island’s nesting sea turtles and their hatchlings by monitoring sea turtle activity.
During the nesting season, May 1st to October 31st, volunteers conduct daily dawn patrols (6 a.m.) along the beach. The patrol consists of walking the entire three miles of Tybee’s beaches and looking for evidence of sea turtle activity.
Early in the season patrols are looking at the sand for sea turtle crawls (tracks) which indicate that a sea turtle may have nested (male loggerhead sea turtles leave the land as hatchlings and never return). Sometimes, a turtle will crawl up the beach and not nest, this is known as a false crawl.
When a crawl is located, the Sea Turtle Project Coordinator verifies the presence of a nest by locating the eggs in the nest cavity. When a viable nest is confirmed, it is roped off and posted. The average length of incubation is 60 days, so observation of the nests becomes a part of the daily dawn patrol. As a nest’s hatching time approaches, volunteers are assigned to “nest sit” during the night until that nest has hatched.
When a nest hatches, the hatchling number is estimated by the number of tracks from the nest to the ocean. Five days after the hatch, the nests are excavated and egg shells are counted to determine the number of eggs laid, and of those laid, how many actually hatched. Nesting data is reported to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Sea Turtle Stranding Network
The STSSN collects information on and documents strandings of marine turtles. The network encompasses the coastal areas of the eighteen state region from Maine through Texas, and includes portions of the U.S. Caribbean. Data are compiled through the efforts of network participants who document marine turtle strandings in their respective areas and contribute those data to the centralized STSSN data base.
GA DNR monitors marine turtle mortality through the STSSN and the science center participates in the effort by responding to citizen notifications for stranded sea turtle sightings. The Sea Turtle Project Coordinator is the primary response person often with the assistance of the US Coast Guard. Dead sea turtles are retrieved, photographed, and a data sheet is completed. The animal is stored in our freezer pending DNR pick-up. DNR then performs a necropsy to evaluate causes of mortality and gather other data. Sea turtle strandings are the primary index for threats to sea turtles in coastal waters.
In partnership with the City of Tybee Island, the science center creates interpretive signage for the island’s visitors.