Rare turtles born on Marion shores

By Jennifer Heshion | Aug 18, 2012
Courtesy of: Don Lewis Hunted almost to extinction by both animals and humans,  the diamondback terrapin turtles are making a comeback on the South Coast, says "Turtle Guy" Don Lewis.

Marion — The diamondback terrapin turtles are classified as threatened on the state's endangered species list. But, Marion resident Don Lewis says don’t count them out quite yet.

Last week, Lewis and his wife Sue Wieber Nourse discovered a nest of sixteen baby terrapins on a local beach. After a little tender, love and care, Lewis says the babies are thriving.

Known as the “Turtle Guy,” Lewis is the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Districts and an expert on turtles. For the past decade, he and his wife, who is a research scientist and CEO of Cape Cod Consultants, have been studying the terrapin turtles.

The turtles are rare in the Marion estuaries, with only an estimated 100 terrapins surviving in the South Coast habitat, Lewis said.

The terrapins have been a favorite prey among animal predators as well as with humans. Lewis said that the baby turtles were once a delicacy harvested by the barrels in the early 1900’s.

The terrapins have since been taken off the menu, but Lewis said the turtles nesting grounds by the shore have inadvertently collided with beach-goers.

“We humans like their habitat more than they do and we’re bigger and badder,” Lewis said. “They have to nest so it’s a competition with human development.”

Once the mother turtles lay their eggs, the eggs spend roughly two months incubating in the sand before hatching.

In an effort to protect the nests, Lewis and Nourse build a predator excluder (a cylinder made from chicken wire) around the nests that they come across.

“It keeps predators away, but you buy yourself a burden,” he said. “The babies can’t get out by themselves so we have to check the nests frequently.”

The couple have even opened their home to the small hatchlings with a “turtle garden” in their backyard to help the weaker turtles get into fighting shape before being released into the wild.

With a little help, Lewis said the turtles are making a comeback.

“I’ve been doing the same work in Wellsleet for 30 years and we’ve definitely seen the numbers turn around significantly,” Lewis said.

For more on the couple's work, check out their website!

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