On Poplar Island, a turtle graduation

The Baltimore Sun

Willem Roosenburg reached into a white bucket and pulled out a terrapin the size of a hamburger. The Ohio University professor waved a scanner over the freshwater turtle, recording the data from the tiny transponder in its leg before handing Lulu back to her handlers, first-graders from Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School in Hanover.

Tuesday was the last time the first-graders saw the turtle after spending nine months nurturing the hatchling in their classroom tank. It was time to release her and her brother, Blue, back into the Chesapeake Bay surrounding Poplar Island. For Roosenburg, it was goodbye until at least 2010. By then, Lulu should have matured enough to return to her home to nest. Roosenburg will know for sure when he scans her again.

Lulu and Blue are two of the 167 terrapins that are being released by county schoolchildren at Poplar Island. The release started May 15 and will be finished by Wednesday. Now in its second year, the project aims to teach children to care for the environment. The students, in turn, help researchers learn whether baby terrapins survive better in the wild or in captivity.

Roosenburg and colleagues from Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center might have discovered the answer earlier than they thought: While driving around the island later that day, they spotted a terrapin hanging from the mouth of a great blue heron.

"We were all sitting there saying, 'Look, he has a turtle!'" Roosenburg recalled. "We were hoping it wasn't one of the ones released, but by its size, it looked likely that it was."

The research is important because terrapin populations are dwindling in the Chesapeake Bay. Although they are not an endangered species, scientists believe the destruction of their habitat, increased market demand and their long reproductive cycle could spell disaster for the bay's turtle population.

Fishermen reported catching about 10,000 pounds of turtles last year, an increase from 724 pounds in 2005. The increase was dramatic enough for the General Assembly to outlaw terrapin fishing this year.

The female terrapin population has fallen by 75 percent in the past 10 years, said Roosenburg, who has studied terrapins at Cremona Farm in the Patuxent River. The biology professor and researcher has also been monitoring terrapin nests on Poplar Island since 2002 for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Poplar Island is a unique location because it is being restored through dredging after erosion nearly wiped the island out of existence. Today it offers an oasis for terrapin nests because it is free of the raccoons and foxes that normally feast on terrapin eggs.

Arlington Echo, the Anne Arundel County school system's nature camp, teamed up with Roosenburg two years ago to create a catch-and-release program for students. Last year, they released 100 terrapins.

The project, funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, is a tremendous education tool, because it teaches students about the importance of the bay ecosystem, Roosenburg said.

"The cute, attractive animals allow them to captivate the attention of the students," Roosenburg said.

Students in 80 classrooms at 42 schools in Anne Arundel County participated this year. They received the baby terrapins in October when they were the size of a quarter.

In the wild, newborn terrapins burrow into the sand and hibernate. They emerge in the spring the same size, easy prey for crabs, fish and birds, said Melanie Parker, a teacher-specialist with Arlington Echo. The babies have more than a 90 percent mortality rate.

In the classroom, the turtles grow to be several inches in diameter over the same time period, effectively making the turtles the size of a 3- to 5-year-old terrapin. The turtles grow so rapidly because they are raised in tanks with warm water and ultraviolet light that mimics the sun. Students also feed them high-protein turtle food, which makes them grow, said Stephen Barry, coordinator of outdoor/environmental education at Arlington Echo. During the last month in the tank, students feed the turtles slugs, so they become accustomed to their environment when they are released.

The first, third, fourth and fifth grades at Hebron-Harmon Elementary School raised terrapins. Classes alternated which days they released them. On Tuesday, a Maryland Environmental Service boat took the first-graders and a group of fifth-graders in the Hebron-Harman environmental club from Tilghman Island to Poplar Island.

Arlington Echo staff gave students a tour of Poplar Island, pointing out the plant species and evidence of wildlife that has migrated to the island.

The highlight clearly was the terrapin release. The first-graders waved goodbye just before releasing Blue, then Lulu into the water.

Isis Deshields, 7, watched Lulu rocket away from her. After 30 seconds, Lulu swam to the surface and looked back at the shore to orient herself.

"She saw she could live," Isis said, acknowledging she was sad to part with Lulu and Blue. "I miss them."

About 20 feet away, the fifth-graders released two females - Big Kahuna and Snapperoo. Barry asked the students which terrapin ate first during feeding time. The students told him it was Big Kahuna.

"Watch, Big Kahuna will be the first to make it into the water," Barry said.

The students released both turtles onto the sand at the same time. Snapperoo dashed toward the water, but Big Kahuna turned back and seemed disoriented. Barry turned her around, and she made for the water.

"That's unusual," Barry said. "Usually the more aggressive ones are the first to go into the water."

Frank Chambers, 10, said the terrapin project made a strong impression on him.

"It made me want to help more animals," Frank said. "Just by looking at it, [the turtle] made me feel happy inside."

"The wonders of life," he said.

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