The TCI is dedicated to the survival of the Northern Diamondback Terrapins of NJ.
The Terrapin Conservation Initiative (TCI) was founded by Chris and Casey Leone of Garden State Tortoise in 2018. After spending a year working alongside the Terrapin Nesting Project on Long Beach Island, the Leones began their own work in Leeds Point. They then moved forward with branding and expanding TCI to additional study sites in southern coastal New Jersey.
TCI works to protect the northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin), an iconic turtle species found solely in North America which is the only species endemic to brackish water. New Jersey's beautiful, incomparable shore features an ecosystem rich in history and spectacular wildlife including the diamondback terrapin. Once hunted to near extinction for turtle soup, terrapins have made a comeback along the salt marsh habitat throughout the state but mostly in its more wild, southern portion. Still, they are consistently threatened by man in the form of shore traffic, illegal collection for the pet trade and habitat encroachment. Summers at the Jersey shore bring an unfathomable amount of visitors to its beaches, seafood restaurants, fishing and other attractions and this inevitably means big trouble for wildlife. Turtles begin crossing roads in May to breed and to seek-out appropriate nesting areas with terrapins sadly frequenting shore roadways to find the best locations to deposit their eggs. The sheer volume of road mortality in this species is staggering and although they have revived their numbers since the soup days, they are headed toward yet another decline from other factors such as this.
As if crossing busy roads isn't dangerous enough, other wildlife also take their toll on these terrapin populations. Predators like crows, raccoons, skunks, red fox and shorebirds make a quick meal of the eggs that the mother terrapins work so hard to produce and protect. Thousands of eggs are consumed by these animals day and night with nests being completely destroyed. The babies that are lucky enough to hatch also face these threats as they emerge from the ground in late summer or fall and try to make it to the water where they can find refuge.
Being advocates for the protection of NJ wildlife and reptiles in general, the Leone family vowed to be a constant watch on these populations and to save them at any cost. After initial paperwork to secure permits from the state was finalized, the project had an explosive first season. The northern diamondback terrapin population found within the project's main study site revealed to be robust and healthy which offered both helpful insight and a hopeful future with this initiative now in place. Working as a family, the Leones vigorously attended the area during peak season to help females safely cross the road to nest and process each one. Every female was given an internal microchip or "PIT tag" to protect them from poaching and so they could be easily recognized every season. By using an appropriate scanner, the chip's unique number or code is read inside each terrapin. This personal identification number stops any possible confusion between individuals or terrapins from other populations. Various statistics are recorded for every animal including photos, weight, carapace length and width and plastron length. Once a female is done being processed, she is immediately released where she was encountered. Every nest accounted for is carefully removed from the ground and placed into artificial incubation at Garden State Tortoise to ensure they can properly develop and hatch. At the end of each season, the little hatchlings are released into the roots of the salt grass that lines the marsh. It is here that the babies and dig in, stay hidden and begin fattening themselves up on a 100% natural diet.
The Terrapin Conservation Initiative's work has proven to be successful so far with hundreds of female terrapins tagged, recorded and released. In addition, thousands of babies have been hatched and placed at home in the salt marsh where they belong. In the beginning, the project was isolated to one site but as of 2020 is has expanded to two additional sites. Thanks to these efforts, a dent has been put in the outrageous predation the nests would normally face and the project has even been responsible for catching illegal poaching in the act. With tremendous help from theTurtleRoom via funding and a grant from the Turtle Conservancy, TCI has been fortunate enough to perform their work using state of the art equipment. The northern diamondback terrapin is now a focal species for the garden state after being removed from the game list not long ago and like all of the state's turtles, they face an uncertain future. Education is a huge part of what TCI is about and in the summer months, the Leone family makes a presence in giving talks or presentations about terrapins and other wildlife. In such a major tourist area, it is crucial that our communities are properly informed about the importance of these creatures in each ecosystem. Through strength in numbers, we can join forces to ensure the diamondback terrapin and all turtles have a solid shot in years to come.
If you'd like to contribute to the work the Terrapin Conservation Initiative is doing please click the "donate now" button. Every little bit counts and is greatly appreciated as we continue to save the northern diamondback terrapins of south Jersey.