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Students follow clues to rare turtle

Tabor research may help increase threatened species

What was once rumor is now reality, thanks to some curious Tabor Academy students who have confirmed sightings of rare turtles in Marion.


For years, there have been various reports of diamondback terrapins in Sippican Harbor and nearby Aucoot Cove. But no scientific proof of their existence has been established until now, said Sue Nourse, of Tabor's Schaefer Oceanology Laboratory.

The turtle, marked by diamond patterns on its shell, is on the national threatened species list, meaning it could be designated endangered if measures aren't taken to protect it, said Don Lewis, a researcher with the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Sea Turtle Stranding Network.

"We had been told by locals that no diamondback terrapins were in the harbor and by Aucoot Cove residents who had lived here for decades that there were no sea turtles, period," Nourse said. "But others reported seeing these little turtleheads sticking up out of the water, and one time I had a hatchling actually walk into the lab."

Her curiosity piqued, she and Lewis, who works with her and Tabor on turtle research, obtained a $50,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to study the species.

This fall, Nourse and her students found 37 turtle nests. Lewis said they expect to eventually find more than 250.

Tabor student Lindsay Beckel said the turtles went undetected for so long because "they're exceptionally elusive. They blend in very well with their surroundings and are very quick to hide." This helps them evade predators, said Lewis.

"The good news is that when you know they're here, you can make minor alterations to improve their habitat, such as not blocking their access to nesting areas," he said. "They need to have open soil, so you don't want manicured lawns right to the shoreline.

"They need salt marshes and protected estuaries and they have that. But development has been so extensive with things like sea walls and groins and asphalting closing off nesting areas."

Lewis and Nourse said the students' research will sensitize residents to the turtles' needs.

"If you give people information, it's surprising how environmentally conscious they will be," Lewis said.

He said little research on the species has been done in the area, although a study in Wellfleet on Cape Cod has been ongoing for 25 years. The students will also share their findings with local and state conservation agencies and government environmental groups in hopes of further protecting the species' habitat, Nourse said.

Lewis said the diamondback turtle is nonmigratory, and can be found from Cape Cod to southwest Texas, "but the populations are very depressed."

One reason is centuries-old and has to do with its Algonquin name, he said. It translates to "good-eating turtle."

"They used to be landed by the hundreds of thousands" in Colonial times, Lewis said, and were eaten by General Washington's troops at Valley Forge when food was scarce.

Zach Alton of Marion, a junior at Tabor, said he has lived in town for 10 years, but never saw a diamondback until this fall.

"We see a lot of painted turtles, but not these," he said.

The students have a batch of hatchlings in the school's lab, curious little creatures that scurry across desktops. Some have hatched in students' hands, Nourse said. They usually grow to the size of a dinner plate and have a life span similar to that of a human's, according to Lewis. Their longevity, combined with their nonmigratory ways, ensures they will be around for a long time, he said.

As the turtles grow, researchers will mark their shells to give future researchers a way to make comparisons, Lewis said.

"The ones that Zach will mark in the spring, his children and grandchildren will be able to see someday," Lewis said.

As to the importance of preserving the turtle, Lewis said, "They're a bellwether species, like the canary in a coal mine. Because they are air breathers and have to use uplands to nest and the water to forage and mate, they're constantly testing the ecosystems. If you see a decline in their population, something's amiss in your ecosystem."

The grant itself, when matched by assistance from Tabor, both financial and through volunteer help (such as Lewis's), is actually worth about $115,000, he said.

"It's a very prestigious grant," Nourse said. "It's the kind given to universities and research institutes. They just don't give them to high schools."

Winners of the grant in 2002 included Harvard Medical School, the University of Massachusetts, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the New England Aquarium, she said.

The Tabor research will serve as pilot lessons for Tabor and be extended to other schools locally and perhaps nationally, Lewis said.

Nourse called the research "ground breaking" for the prep school, which she said is one of the few waterfront private high schools in the country. It also coincides with a significant chapter in Tabor's history: The building of a state-of-the-art ocean research lab on the waterfront.

Construction of the $3 million, 8,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to start next year, Nourse said. The current lab is only 2,400 square feet. It will include tanks for various species and a technology room where students can do "cutting edge" research, she said.

The school's board of trustees is scheduled to meet Jan. 17 to finalize plans for the new lab, Nourse said.

"Turtles are so engaging and relevant, they get the students hooked and you can use them as a vehicle to teach really good science" Nourse said, including gathering of data, observation and comparison. "And finding a way of educating a generation of students to be better stewards of the environment is a big plus."

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