"This project has changed my professional mindset of where I want to take my career..."
—Tiffany Burgess

Diamonds in the Marsh

Biology Majors Stand Up for Terrapins

Jordan Gray, a biology student who graduated in spring 2009, was drawn to the death toll of diamondback terrapins as they tried to cross Highway 80 on Tybee Island only to be crushed by zooming cars. In 2004, he started extracting eggs from the bodies of dead females and bringing them to the biology lab in an attempt to hatch them. The idea worked and it has morphed into an ongoing save-the-turtles campaign sustained by current biology students, with the support of associate professor Kathryn Craven.

The diamondback terrapin is the only North American turtle species to live exclusively in brackish water — marsh water containing both fresh and saltwater. They are found along the eastern seaboard from Massachusetts to Texas. But what will garner them the most attention is that the little critters — males grow to between 3-5 inches and females between 5-9 inches—are cute as buttons.

So, the biology students have forged a campus alliance: T.E.R.P.S (Terrapin Educational Research Program of Savannah) to bring focus to the turtles, prevent deaths, and collect data through first-hand research. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has taken notice. In part due to data collected by the students, in 2006 the agency designated the Georgia subspecies of the diamondback terrapin as an unusual species, affording them additional protection as non-game wildlife.

On campus, the T.E.R.P.S. maintain a small pond where five adult terrapins are kept. The turtles make regular star appearances at local schools, community festivals and other events in a shameless PR blitz to promote themselves.

"If you can get people to see these animals and touch them, they will want to save them," said biology senior Tiffany Burgess, who first got involved with the turtles in 2006.

Eggs and hatchlings are cared for in the biology laboratory and students make regular releases into the wild—away from Highway 80—of juvenile turtles.

"This project has changed my professional mindset of where I want to take my career," said Burgess. "I'm very hopeful that the effort can be sustained as the current students graduate."

All students can join in and find ways to apply other disciplines to help save the turtles. Burgess, who is headed for graduate studies in zoology, has learned one thing from "her babies." Field research is where she wants to be. "I want to be outside working with animals all the time."

For more information or volunteer opportunities, email aasuterps@gmail.com.