GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Rows of one-inch, chalky white eggs sit side by side in plastic containers in a 30-degree Celsius incubator at Stockton University.
In a few weeks, baby diamondback terrapins will be born — all lucky to be alive. They’re part of the school’s “Head Start” program, in which eggs from road-kill female turtles are recovered, hatched and monitored for 10 months before being released into the wild.
More than 610 of the creatures were hit and killed by cars while crossing busy causeways this summer between Corsons Inlet in Ocean City and Stone Harbor Boulevard, according to the Wetlands Institute. Nearly 900 eggs have been recovered from those dead females.
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“Some of these should be hatching very shortly,” said John Rokita, a lab technician for Stockton’s Head Start program, which rehabilitates the creatures and raises their young in conjunction with the Middle Township nonprofit.
This season was one of the deadliest for terrapins in Atlantic and Cape May counties in recent memory, due to a lengthened and warmer nesting season.
And the lab is busy.
In another room, dozens of tiny, matchbox-sized turtles lounge in tanks filled with shallow, brackish water and attached to heat lights to mimic the sun’s rays. The air smells like salt.
Some try to climb out of the container, their back legs working feverishly, while others devour floating turtle pellets. When a turtle matures, it graduates to a deeper tank of water.
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A terrapin’s sex is determined by the temperature, Rokita said. If the incubators are below 26 degrees Celsius, a male will form. The researchers control the environment to ensure females are born that will keep the population thriving.
“Their sex isn’t determined chromosomally like dogs, people, rats or cats,” Rokita said. “It’s by the nest temperature. ... If it’s a cool summer, mostly males will be produced.”
The researchers mark X’s on the terrapin eggs that never develop, likely because they were cooked or crushed inside their mother.
There are about 150 turtles throughout the facility, and each has a different story.
Rokita picked up one who wriggled in his hands. She was struck crossing the Longport causeway July 2 and suffered a crack along her top shell, called the carapace. She was carrying one egg.
“She’s going to be OK,” Rokita said, pointing toward the glue sealing the fissure. As the pieces repair, the adhesive material will fall off. “She’ll probably get released this year. ... She’s well healed up.”
Other terrapins never leave the Stockton lab, like one blind 39-year-old who hatched there in 1991. His eyes appear fused shut, and he would likely not survive long on his own, so he remains under the school’s care.
Another injured turtle was taken to the lab in early July who was born 19 years earlier under the program and injected with a Passive Integrated Transponder tag under the skin of her back leg, said Brian Williamson, a Wetlands Institute research scientist.
The nonprofit said she was microchipped July 13, 2000, and found by a volunteer in Stone Harbor almost two decades later. It was a chance event that shows the effectiveness of the program, Williamson said.
To the trained eye, it was clear Kevin Courts and Michael Riff were illegal terrapin harvesters.
“We definitely know head starting is effective in some ways,” Williamson said. “These turtles would have never hatched if we didn’t get them.”
The institute also started a new tracking effort last year.
Radio tags, costing between $100 and $200, have been attached to the backs of about 30 turtles to monitor their movements in the marshes. Antennas at the group’s research center receive signals emitted from the devices.
It will allow the scientists to see the terrapins’ favorite hangout spots, and the challenges they face.
“It’s a new program, and we’re still trying to make sure everything is working,” Williamson said. “But looking at it, we get a sense of their location.”