On any given day you can find most Aquarium staff members working hard inside the Aquarium to keep our animals healthy, our building clean, and our visitors happy. But there are some employees that you will rarely see inside the Aquarium walls. Instead, they are busy working outdoors on the Aquarium’s various conservation programs and projects. So it was a special day when the Conservation team was spotted working on a project indoors at the Aquarium.
On this day, the floor of the lab was lined with buckets of various shapes and sizes, each holding a juvenile Diamondback terrapin. The terrapins are part of a research project we call Terrapins in the Classroom, and on this day, researcher Dr. Willem Roosenburg, from Ohio State University, had the challenging task of implanting a PIT tag into all 30 terrapins.
A passive integrated transponder device, or PIT tag, is a tiny chip that, once implanted into an animal, allows researchers to monitor and identify specific animals over a long period of time. In most cases, the tag will stay with the terrapin for its entire life, allowing Dr. Roosenburg to track the animal’s specific location, movement, and abundance in a certain area. Upon recapture or return for nesting in future years, terrapins are scanned for tags and the growth data are compared to information collected in the classroom. In this effort, students are part of relevant, cutting-edge research that is focused on the conservation of the species.
Each year, hatchling terrapins are collected from Poplar Island as part of a research study and distributed to teachers throughout Baltimore City and the surrounding counties. With the help of the Aquarium’s Conservation team, students care for the terrapins and collect data on their growth; at the end of the school year, they have the opportunity to go on a field trip to Poplar Island to release the terrapins into their natural marsh habitat.
Research scientists are hoping to prove that this program is mutually beneficial; the children make strong connections with the terrapins and are thus driven to protect the terrapins’ bay habitat, and terrapins get a “head start” with a safe environment to grow during their first winter. When they are released in the summer, they tend to be notably larger than a wild terrapin of the same age. Currently, 30 schools are involved in the program.
It was a busy day inside for the Conservation team, but they will soon be outside again, this time helping the students release the tagged terrapins on Poplar Island. According to our Conservation team, the release day always brings mixed emotions for the students. They are excited for their terrapins to begin the next part of their lives in their natural habitat, but also sad to say goodbye to the friend they’ve cared for each day.
However they’re feeling, though, each student who participates in the Terrapins in the Classroom program leaves with a new love for the Diamondback terrapin and a new-found sense of stewardship for the Chesapeake Bay habitat.