Make Way for Turtles

This Fourth of July, you might get stuck in traffic jams or have plane delays due to afternoon thunderstorms or may experience some travel mishaps. If you were flying into New York City yesterday, however, you might have had another kind of delay: terrapins on the runway.

I saw this story last night on the Rachel Maddow show and read about it in the New York Times (the readers’ comments are fun, too).

The diamondback terrapins of New York City (and especially those in Queens) are on a different schedule than us, but it’s just as important. Terrapins spend almost all of their time in salt marsh creeks and estuaries until it is time to mate. From mid-June to mid-July they gather off nesting beaches to mate. After mating, the females wait for several days for the eggs to mature. Then the females must leave the safety of the estuarine waters to search for a nest site in the dunes.

Even the runway of one of the busiest airports in the world, JFK International airport, will not stop these females from crossing and finding a place to lay their eggs.

Yesterday wildlife specialists from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey removed about 100 diamondback terrapins from Runway 4 Left at around 10 am.

Some flights were delayed for up to 30 minutes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, but not too many flights were delayed because this runway isn’t often used this time of year because of seasonal prevailing-wind patterns.

The wildlife specialists relocated the turtles to an ideal place on the other side of the runway where they can lay their eggs.

As quote in the New York Time article, Allen Gosser, assistant state director for New York wildlife service for the department, said, “We just take them to a part of the airport where they can keep traveling west, but in a safe direction.” Kennedy Airport is largely surrounded by water, and diamondback terrapins breed in and around Jamaica Bay. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is an important nesting and breeding area for the terrapins.

After the turtles have been relocated to their nesting area, the females will search for just the right nesting spot, well above high tide mark, so that the nest will not get inundated with water. She sniffs and digs the sand with her webbed back feet, looking for the best place to lay her eggs.

Finally when she finds the perfect spot, she digs for an hour, deposits ten white oval leathery eggs, and then covers the nest with her hind legs.

Diamondback terrapin laying eggs (courtesy of NRDC)

She smooths out the sand, hiding any signs of the nest. She then quickly returns to the surf. The eggs take about sixty to eighty days to hatch. They face many predators before and after they hatch (racoons, for example, dig them up) but about ten percent will survive.

Kudos to the Port Authority and for helping the terrapins get to their important destination on time!

Note: Information about diamondback nesting is from 25 Nature Spectacles in New Jersey, by Joanna Burger and Michael Gochfield, Rutgers University Press.