It was a bittersweet day for the Girard School fifth-graders. The tiny terrapin hatchlings that they had cared for since fall were to be released into their natural habitat, the Barnegat Bay salt marsh at Island Beach State Park.
“We had fun with them, but they have to go home,” said fifth-grader Miarah Palmer. “It’s fair, even though we’re going to miss them. I hope they don’t die.”
The students had cause to worry. For every hundred terrapin eggs laid, only one reaches adulthood, according to Dr. John Wnek, supervisor at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science, a high school in Manahawkin. Each year Wnek collects eggs from terrapin nests that have been exposed by predators or made vulnerable by the weather, then distributes the hatchlings to schools.
Students care for them until they are ready for release in the spring. Girard has been participating in the program for seven years.
Before the release, research assistants patiently cut or filed notches into the shells of the 52 hatchlings, raised by students at Girard, Lacey Township Middle School, and MATES. The notches will help researchers identify the turtles and determine the success of the program.
Wnek says he does not yet know whether his project has any impact on the terrapin population. Terrapins are a cause of concern in New Jersey because of their shrinking habitat.
“The most valuable part of the whole project is the teaching of stewardship,” said Wnek. He explained that students who have cared for a species and learned about the threats facing those creatures will carry that experience with them as they go through life.