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A rewarding opportunity with terrapins

About a month ago, the Herpetology Team participated in our annual diamondback terrapin swap with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. As part of the Zoo’s support of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s Jekyll Island Causeway Conservation Program, we returned 25 individuals back to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center after about a year of being raised on habitat at Zoo Atlanta, and in return, we received 25 little terrapins only a few weeks old to come back with us to Atlanta. At the Zoo, we mimic the natural coastal habitat where terrapins are found by monitoring the salinity of the water.

Though this is something we do every year, this time it was a little different. I was able to participate in their release of last year’s terrapins; this was a first for Zoo Atlanta!

When the terrapins first arrive into our care, we make sure to mark each individual turtle with a number using nail polish. This way we can tell the difference between each one, which is essential in tracking their growth. 

Once the terrapins reach a certain age it is time to release them back to the marshes of Jekyll Island. But before we can release them, there are some things we must do. A week before the transfer to Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Zoo Atlanta veterinarians place microchips in each turtle. It is much like placing a microchip in your cat or dog. In the future if the turtle is found in a survey, they would be able to distinguish which individual turtle it is and learn about its life history.

When we arrived at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the turtles were given plenty of fresh water and a heavy meal. The next morning, we got the final weights on all 25 turtles, as well as got measurements of the head width, carapace (the top of the shell) and plastron (the bottom of the shell). After all the measurements were taken, we removed the nail polish numbers so the turtles can camouflage into their surroundings.

We were finally ready to go! The turtles were placed in large bins and loaded into the Sea Turtle Van. We opted to leave in the morning because the tide was low. Just down the road from the Center, there is a great diamondback terrapin habitat. Diamondback terrapins are only found in brackish water where coastal marshes meet the ocean.

While we were walking to the release site, we saw so many wonderful things for the turtles to eat, like snails and crabs.  Getting to the site was a little treacherous; after walking through reeds we were met with a lot of thick mud! At one point we were sinking up to our waists in muck! 

Our goal was to make sure that the diamondback terrapins were released in a safe place, far away from vehicle traffic and predators. Though we all ended up with mud from our heads to our toes, it was all worth it. I am so incredibly happy to help the diamondback terrapins’ wild population in south Georgia!
Ashley T.
Keeper II, Herpetology

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