Project CT aims to help turtles cross roads safely

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Their reasons aren’t nearly as important as their ability to do it safely, and a statewide project hopes to help them do just that.

In addition to habitat loss and illegal collectionconservationists say roadkill is a real threat to Connecticut turtles.

But for the northern diamondback turtle, help might be on the way. If a statewide conservation effort is successful, these crossings could be aided by culverts, road barriers and vertebrate-friendly road signs warning drivers that they may come across the shelled critters.

Researchers from Western Connecticut State University are teaming up with the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to track turtles along coastal roads this summer and determine which locations could benefit from road mortality mitigation.

Once a week, volunteers from the “Terrapin Tracking” project will walk assigned half-mile stretches of road and look for signs of terrapins, dead or alive. They will also look for nests and eggs, photograph what they find, and record their observations in an online data form.

Researchers will use this information to identify locations with high traffic fatality rates, said John Michael Arnett, a WCSU graduate student working on the project.

“Road mortality in general for vertebrate species is extremely high,” he said.

Once researchers find these trouble spots, they can implement mitigation strategies such as short-term road closures and “turtle crossing” signs, Arnett said.

There is also another solution, which would not require drivers to take detours.

According to Arnett, culverts — large pipes often seen under roads and bridges — can accommodate homing turtles.

“Turtles can easily come and go between them and it’s pretty much just an easy road tunnel for them,” he said.

Still, most culverts aren’t designed in a way to benefit terrapins, Arnett said.

Because installing new culverts costs money, he said, researchers need to determine where they are needed most.

Wildlife-friendly culverts not only benefit turtles.

“All kinds of organisms can use them,” said Brian Hess, a DEEP wildlife biologist involved with the terrapin tracking initiative. “Having appropriately sized culverts is also very important for fish.”

Culverts that are submerged at high tide but above water at low tide, for example, are not conducive to wildlife passage, according to Hess.

“If you have an appropriately sized crossing for the animals, the next step is to have some sort of barrier that directs them towards that and away from the road surface,” he said.

The state Department of Transportation is also a partner in the turtle tracking program, according to a Release Norwalk Marine Aquarium.

“CTDOT has a natural resources planning team that is heavily involved in the planning and design of construction projects,” CTDOT spokesman Josh Morgan said in a statement. “We will continue to share road data, insights and mitigation strategies with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection throughout this project. The protection of natural resources and wildlife is always a priority in our work.

The northern diamondback terrapin, the only turtle in the United States that lives in brackish water, is a state-listed species of special concern.

The turtles’ breeding strategy can be a challenge for conservationists, Hess said.

“Their population structure is based on a small number of individuals reaching adulthood and living and reproducing for a long time,” he said.

Terrapins take eight to 10 years to reach reproductive age, Hess said, and like other turtles, their hatchlings and eggs suffer from high mortality rates.

“Adult mortality can be a really big problem,” he said. “The continued success of a turtle population often depends on the survival of adults.”

Meanwhile, terrapins face human-made threats such as habitat fragmentation, subsidized predators, and illegal collection for the pet trade.

Studies show that predators like raccoons can dig up nearly 100% of turtle nests in a given area, according to Hess.

In developed coastal areas, “we often see higher populations of these predators” due to human food resources, Hess said. Biologists call these animals “subsidized predators.”

“They might not be there in the same concentrations, in the same numbers, if they didn’t have the resources that people are providing,” Hess said. “So those (turtle) nests might have better luck.”

Given the many threats terrapins face, Hess hopes the monitoring project will offer “actionable” data to guide conservation efforts.

Terrapins hibernate in mud during the winter, Bridget Cervero, senior education manager at Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium, told Hearst Connecticut Media. They emerge in April and head for brackish water, she said. That’s why the Connecticut terrapin trackers will be on the roads between April and August.

In addition to identifying roadkill hotspots, their work will aid WCSU’s terrapin research.

Arnett sets out to prove a hypothesis about the impact of road fatalities on migrant women.

“If women are constantly being hit by cars, it will lead to a skewed sex ratio where there are more males than females,” he told Hearst Connecticut Media.

To test the theory, he will catch terrapins at nine sites across the state, including an isolated area of ​​the road, he said, noting that the road will act as a control.

The efforts of the trackers will complement his work.

“We don’t know which areas have roadkill,” Arnett said. “Without their data, they acquire the project will not be a success.”

Volunteer turtle trackers, who drivers might see wearing reflective vests and walking on the side of the road, could also save turtles’ lives.

“These turtles are one of a kind. They’re the only species in the United States that live in brackish water, and their habitat is shrinking every day, and with climate change, with urbanization…these turtles just get hit left and right,” Arnett said. “They can’t defend themselves, they can’t do anything, so we just try to do the maximum for them.”

The Norwalk Sea Aquarium will host another virtual training session on Tuesday. To register, go to www.maritimeaquarium.org/community-science and select the “Terrapin Tracking Team” icon.

meghan.friedmann@hearstmédiact.com


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