Conserve Wildlife Blog

Public Participation Key to Protect Terrapins on Roads

June 12th, 2019

Local residents and visitors in coastal areas urged to drive carefully during summer months.

by Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager

To cross or not to cross? Roads are barriers to wildlife, like this adult female northern diamondback terrapin.

This year marks nine years since we began efforts to document and reduce roadkills of N. diamondback terrapins in S. Ocean and N. Atlantic Counties within the Barnegat and Great Bay Watersheds. Our Great Bay Terrapin Project was centered around Great Bay Blvd. or Seven Bridges Road, a long saltmarsh access road where many adult female terrapins enter the roadway while seeking nest sites.

We began by installing a short barrier fence and then tubing along Great Bay Blvd. in the busiest section of roadway. Then we recruited local volunteers to help us patrol/survey the road, collect data on the number of terrapins found in the road, and most importantly – – to help ensure the breeding females safely cross the roadway. Lastly, we produced an educational brochure and installed X-ING signs to help raise awareness.

This year the nesting season began with the new moon phase during the first week of June. Adult females leave the protection of their aquatic habitat to seek out nesting sites above the high tide line. Sandy soils are ideal, but anyone who lives along the coast will tell you that they try to nest in just about any soil type…

A newly captured female is marked with an alphabetical notch code: ACMOPQ.

In 2016, while working in close partnership with Dr. John Wnek/MATES Project Terrapin, we began notching the marginal scutes (the edge of their upper shell) with a code to help identify terrapins found in the road. By marking terrapins it will allow us and Project Terrapin to help determine the overall size of the population and how terrapins use the road. Each year we encounter around 750 terrapins on GBB and notch around 125. In 2018 we recaptured thirteen that were previously notched.


Despite close to 60 terrapins being hit by car on Great Bay Blvd. last summer, we’ve managed to reduce the roadkill rate to half of what it was before this project began. We’re thankful to everyone who drives on Great Bay Blvd. and other coastal roads and stops to let them cross or gives them a helping hand. If you live in or visit the area and are interested in helping terrapins and want to contribute your sightings of live or dead terrapins to our project, citizen scientists are urged to follow the steps outlined below (you must have a smartphone with a camera and the ability to record your exact location):

  • Download the free app, called iNaturalist and sign up for an account.
  • Stay safe. Never put yourself at risk! Make sure that you do not endanger yourself, or others, by walking into traffic.
  • After seeing a terrapin enter the roadway. When safe to do so, pull your car over. Be careful to not hit any terrapins who are nesting on the road shoulder! Turn on your hazard signals.
  • If safe – Enter the roadway and approach the terrapin.
  • Using your smartphone – Take a photo of the live, injured or dead terrapin on the road. If you see that it has been notched, then take a photo (looking down) of the top of its shell (carapace).
  • After taking a photo, pick up the terrapin by grabbing its shell with both hands between its front and hind legs. HOLD ON – Terrapins have strong legs!
  • Place the live terrapin off the road onto the soft shoulder (dirt or grass).
  • Record your observation using the iNaturalist app by using the photo you took. Write down any notes, like if the terrapin was wounded or had previous injuries to its shell. Double check that your GPS location is accurate. Lastly, on the bottom right, add your observation to our project, the Great Bay Terrapin Project (you can locate and join by going into the “more” area in the app and then search for “nearby” projects – see screenshot above). It’s important to note – If your sighting is not added to our Project, then it won’t be counted or visible to us!
  • Important Considerations! It is extremely important that you move the turtle in the direction that it is heading. They are not always headed directly towards water. They will sometimes turn around if you put them in the wrong direction, so work with their instincts.
  • Very Important!! Please do not move a terrapin long distances to “somewhere safe!” They have very small home ranges and moving them will only hurt them.
  • Terrapins are a non-game species and protected by state law. If you see anyone collecting or taking terrapins from their natural habitat, suspicious activity can be reported to NJDEP’s 24-hour hotline at 877-WARN-DEP.
  • If you find an injured terrapin, please contact the local animal control agency/humane society for assistance. The locations for where you can take one vary throughout the State. Additional guidance can be found here (NJ Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators) and here (NJ Fish & Wildlife list of Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitators).
  • If you find a dead terrapin and have taken photos to record your observation on iNaturalist, move the terrapin off the road so that it is not counted again.

Each year we see more and more people who come to Great Bay Blvd. to witness this beautiful natural phenomenon and help them safely cross the road. We’re happy that they are willing to slow down and enjoy the wonders of the saltmarsh during the summer. We encourage all who are interested and/or able to help terrapins to contribute to the Great Bay Terrapin Project using iNaturalist. Happy to answer any questions in the comments below or via email.

Our 2019 Great Bay Terrapin Project Student Research Interns – Emily & Gabi.
Emily measures the carapace height of a female terrapin.
A terrapin is weighed on a digital scale.
The location where a terrapin was hit by car is marked with an orange X.
Awareness sign on Great Bay Blvd.

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One Response to “Public Participation Key to Protect Terrapins on Roads”

  1. Trish Buker says:

    Father’s Day : I spent an hour on GBB today. Crossed 8 turtles, saw 4 deceased, 3 were marked with an orange X. Taught one person trying to help to place turtle in direction it was headed and thanked her for her help.