Susquehanna helps Millersville U. student in turtle conservation project

Jennifer Teson of Millersville University measures a terrapin as part of her research project at the Wetlands Institute.

Jennifer Teson of Millersville University measures a terrapin as part of her research project at the Wetlands Institute.

Background: Susquehanna Bank contributes funds to Millersville University in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to support students who choose community service-based internships at nonprofits or government agencies. The donation allows the university’s Office of Experiential Learning and Career Management to offer an award to selected students who are completing an academic internship during a summer semester.

This summer, Millersville student Jennifer Teson completed an internship with the Coastal Conservation Research Program at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, NJ. The  The following is a journal of her experience:

The Wetlands Institute strives to promote research, education, and conservation of the wetland ecosystem through efforts in field research, community involvement, and educational classes. Since I arrived at the end of May, I have participated in all aspects of their mission.

The Institute’s longest running project is centered on diamondback terrapin research and conservation. Two to three times a day, the other interns and I drive 38-mile transects looking for terrapins that are trying to cross the road or have been hit by cars. We help the terrapins cross the road so the females can dig their nests and lay eggs. If the terrapin did not survive, we take her back to the lab to remove her eggs in a process called an “eggectomy,” after which we incubate and hatch her eggs. We have already saved more than 700 eggs! I was also involved in setting up fencing along a major roadway where terrapin road kills occur to prevent terrapins from crossing the road. It was a lot of work but a very rewarding experience.

One of the most exciting days here at the Wetlands Institute to me was the day we — along with a class of kindergarten students — released twenty terrapins raised from hatchlings into a bay. Each student could pick their own turtle to release into the bay. After raising money the entire school year to give the Wetlands Institute for the terrapin research, the young students finally got to see the terrapins they were helping! It was obvious how much fun they were having while getting such a valuable education.

The other interns and I have also been learning about the different ecosystems in Stone Harbor. We have sampled in the wetlands itself, on the beach, in the maritime forests, and in the bay. Since I go to Millersville University in eastern Pennsylvania, we do not often get the opportunity to study these systems hands on, so it has been exciting to witness the processes here first hand.

 

Jennifer Teson works on abandoned crab traps which can decrease terrapin population

Jennifer Teson works on abandoned crab traps which can decrease terrapin population

Since coming to the Wetlands Institute, a large part of my responsibilities consist of assisting ongoing research. Additionally, I am leading my own research project. After some setbacks, my research has finally gotten underway! The primary objective of my elected study is to determine optimal placement of biodegradable panels for diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) on crab traps and analyze their behavior once they enter the trap.

When terrapins reside in areas heavily fished for Atlantic blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus), these abandoned traps can significantly decrease terrapin populations. Biodegradable panels made of plastic, metal, or cellulose meant to degrade within a year can reduce bycatch impacts when fitted to crab traps. Since 1998, the state of New Jersey has required all commercial-style crab traps to have biodegradable panels to help decrease unnecessary drowning of terrapins.  However, New Jersey lacks protocols for biodegradable panel placement, construction, or fastening material in crab traps. By simulating the capture of diamondback terrapins in experimental, well-controlled, supervised crab traps and observing their behavior through digital underwater videography and subsequent lab analysis, I will gain a better understanding of proper placement.

I have spent the better part of the past week and a half searching for and trapping terrapins to use in my study. Though wearing waders in heat indices over 100°F is not exactly comfortable, I felt the experience brought me closer to the marsh ecosystem. I am also learning methods biologists use to capture animals, which I believe will be valuable in my career. After the terrapins have calmed down for several hours, I put them in the trap to watch and record their reactions. Then I watch the video recordings to note their behavioral responses, such as vertical/horizontal escape attempts and total time spent in the trap. It has been very interesting for me to see the similarities and differences in the turtles’ reactions.

At the end of the internship, all the interns will present their research at the Wetlands Institute’s annual research symposium. I will be submitting an abstract to and presenting a 15-minute summary of my findings. I think this will be a great way for me to network and learn to present research outcomes.

Jennifer Teson with one of the giant tortoises at the Philadelphia Zoo

Jennifer Teson with one of the giant tortoises at the Philadelphia Zoo

I can’t believe how quickly this summer has gone! The final days of the Coastal Conservation Research Program have been some of the most memorable. We took a group trip to the Philadelphia Zoo where we got to go behind the scenes at the reptile house. It was really interesting to see the organizational methods the zoo keepers used to keep everything in order and everyone safe. For example, all venomous reptiles had a bright red name tag with the anti-venom serial number on their enclosure. After the tour, the reptile curator let us go into the giant tortoise yard. Who would have thought giant tortoises enjoyed having their necks scratched? One of the largest males even tried to bite if he wasn’t getting enough attention!

The following day was the Wetlands Institute’s annual benefit auction, called the Wings and Water Festival. It was a combination silent and live auction where staff, board members, and donors came to bid on all sorts of items. It was an interesting networking opportunity for the other interns and me. The Wings and Water Festival is the Wetlands Institute’s biggest fundraiser of the year, and it was exciting to help them raise money for such a good cause.

During the final day of the internship, all the interns presented their research at the Wetland Institute’s annual Research Symposium. We had been working very hard in the preceding weeks to put together scientific presentations that would showcase our findings in a logical manner. Though the day was relatively nerve wracking, I think we all did very well and took a lot out of the experience. I learned so much throughout my internship at the Wetlands Institute and made memories that will last a lifetime!

Jennifer Teson of Coatesville, Pa. is a senior at Millersville majoring in Environmental Biology.

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