Small turtles draw big crowd

The Baltimore Sun

Big Barry and Little Steve have suddenly made Anne Arundel County's school headquarters in Annapolis a lot more fun.

Visitors to the administrative building gravitate to the aquarium to watch the two small terrapins glide through the water and chow down on clams. Children start one-sided conversations with the terrapins. The turtles have gotten so used to the human attention since arriving in August that they swim toward the tapping fingers on the glass.

"So many children who come in have never seen a turtle," said Margaret Lacey, who has become a keen observer from her seat less than 50 feet away at the reception desk. "It's better than the zoo because these are our own."

The tank is the showpiece for the county public schools' highly popular Terrapin Connection program, conducted through its Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center.

The center in Millersville created a terrapin catch-and-release program for students two years ago with the help of Ohio University. Researchers collect baby terrapins in August from nesting sites on Poplar Island. Students feed, weigh and measure terrapins in their classrooms and then release the turtles back into the wild at the end the school year, when they are considered mature enough to withstand natural predators.

In May and June, county students released 167 terrapins, an increase from 100 last year. This year, students should be releasing 170. All but 10 will be raised in classrooms. Arlington Echo keeps 10 spare terrapins in case a classroom turtle falls ill, said Stephen Barry, coordinator of outdoor environmental education and the namesake of the two new residents of the school system's headquarters.

Teachers must go through a week of training to learn about the Chesapeake Bay ecosystems, and schools must agree to integrate environmental education into their curriculums, Barry said. That includes having multiple classes work on related projects such as restoring watersheds to prevent water pollution and replanting aquatic habitats with bay grasses.

"We didn't want to use them [terrapins] just as entertainment," Barry said.

Still, the reptiles are entertaining. The program has become so popular that Arlington Echo has scheduled schools to receive terrapins next year.

Students take such an interest in the turtles that they unwittingly become effective spokesmen for the creatures, Barry said. Schoolchildren have written letters to state legislators and local newspapers pushing for the state to ban commercial terrapin fishing. The law was enacted in April.

"People listen to angry kids," Barry said.

Baby terrapins, which are about the size of a quarter, have a 90 percent mortality rate in the wild, Barry said. The turtles, which hibernate during the winter, thrive in warm--water aquariums under ultraviolet light. The environment accelerates their growth so that by the end of the school year, the turtles effectively have matured to the size of 3- to 5-year-old terrapins and are more able to defend themselves against predators.

Arlington Echo has teamed up with terrapin researcher Willem Roosenburg of Ohio University to track the terrapins' progress. Although there are no statistics on the number of terrapins in the Chesapeake Bay, Roosenburg has noted a 75 percent decline in the female terrapin population at testing sites in the Patuxent River.

The Terrapin Connection project helps collect valuable research on the bay's terrapin population, said Will Williams, an outdoor educator at Arlington Echo and coordinator of the terrapin program. Teachers submit weekly reports on the terrapins' measurements to Arlington Echo, which maintains the information in a database.

"We've kind of become the model of raising terrapins in an educational setting," Williams said.

The project is funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which pays for the initial $400 cost of supplying each classroom with a tank and other expenses along the way. The Maryland State Department of Education provides a grant for schoolchildren to take buses to Poplar Island to release the turtles.

Arlington Echo decided to keep two terrapins it rescued and have them serve as educational mascots in the Dr. Carol S. Parham Administration Building. The male, Big Barry, and the female, Small Steve, were the only survivors among 11 siblings. Small Steve could barely raise her head to feed when she was born.

Although still a runt, Small Steve tore into clam meat at the bottom of her lush, pebble-bed aquarium Wednesday. Angel Fitzgerald brought her nearly 2-year-old son, Connor, to see his grandmother, Marta Fitzgerald, a senior testing specialist who works in the county school building. All three wound up in front of the terrapin tank. Connor was so enchanted on his last visit that he didn't want to leave, Marta Fitzgerald said.

"Connor loves to see them," Angel Fitzgerald said.

An article in the Anne Arundel section of The Sun on Sept. 16 about the two baby terrapins at the school district's headquarters made an erroneous suggestion about the way the catch-and-release classroom project began.The project, run by the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, was modeled on a program created by the Terrapin Institute in 1998. The Sun regrets the error.
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