Georgia volunteers work to protect terrapins from causeway deaths

Busy thoroughfare led to high mortality rates among female turtles

By Jonathan Stacey - Meteorologist

JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. - The end of April marks the beginning of the Diamondback Terrapin turtle nesting season around the marshes around Jekyll Island, but the turtles' annual nesting habitat and the busy tourist attraction don't often mix well.  

The busy thoroughfare even led to high mortality rates among the female crawling creatures.

So, in an effort to combat the problem, the Jekyll Island Authority and AmeriCorps volunteers are working to create and maintain a safe delivery habitat for those vulnerable turtles even as vacationers flock to the Georgia island.

On any given late spring or summer day, you'll find Jen Terry, an AmeriCorp husbandry member, cruising the Jekyll Island Causeway looking for terrapin turtles. 

"They can live a very long time. It's very surprising to people, but that's assuming that they make it," said Terry.

But "making it" can be a challenge for many of the female creatures, who are drawn closer to the dangerous causeway as they seek to nest on higher ground away from the marshes they call home.

"A lot of these turtles are relatively small and people are going pretty fast, so a fair amount of them do get hit by cars," said Terry.

Last year, Terry found 300 terrapin turtles on the causeway. Seventy were found dead on the road and 22 others died after they were rescued. 

Despite the staggering number of deaths, nearly 75 percent of the turtles she found were saved -- the highest save rate in a decade.

According to Terry, the save rate continues to increase year-over-year due patrols as well as the installation of nesting boxes nestled near the side of the road, but out of harm's way.

"We are seeing that animals are choosing these areas to nest, whether it's on their own or through us placing them there, but something about these nest boxes are attractive to these females," Terry said.

News4Jax was on hand as several members of the Jekyll Island Authority searched in the boxes for eggs and shell fragments in an attempt to learn more about the turtles that chose to nest in them.

The team ultimately found 18 nests and more than 75 eggs, which is a hopeful sign that many terrapin turtles are choosing to nest in the man-made boxes instead of crossing the busy causeway. 

The terrapin turtle nesting season continues through the summer. 

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