Tag Archives: wildlife conservation

Beach Day for Beetles!

The largest-ever reintroduction of an endangered tiger beetle happened quietly in the morning of October 19th, 2017, on a foggy beach in the Connecticut river. These beetles are the rare Puritan Tiger Beetle, Cicindela puritana , or “PTB” as tiger beetle experts call it. This species is listed as federally threatened and state endangered due to a century of human use that has changed the Connecticut River’s flow. This change has reduced desired habitat, and left only one viable population of PTBs in New England. This reintroduction of more than 700 laboratory-reared PTB larvae is only part of a multi-year, team-project to establish sustainable populations of PTB in the Connecticut River.

Endangered Puritan Tiger Beetle male.

This project, which is supported by the Cooperative Recovery Initiative program and based at the Richard Cronin Aquatic Resource Center in partnership with Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, unites a seasoned team of over 30 Federal & State wildlife officials, professional Biologists, Academic partners, students, and generous volunteers. Together, this group is pioneering methods to acquire land, captive-rear larvae, manage habitat, and use field-techniques to ensure the survival of PTB throughout one of the largest rivers in the Northeast.

Volunteers from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Student Conservation Association, and the University of Massachusetts prepare a plot before larva reintroduction.

To restore a healthy river ecosystem that includes these tiny apex predators, lab-reared PTB reintroductions are key to establishing new populations. To do this, the PTB team uses aerial “butterfly” nets to carefully collect adult beetles from the single source-population. The adult beetles mate and lay eggs in the lab, which hatch into larvae that grow progressively larger through 3 growth phases, called instars. In the wild, it takes about 2 years for PTB larvae to reach their third instar, but in the lab, this time can be reduced to just a few months.

Rodger Gwiazdowski moistens the top layer of soil with river water at 1 of 7 reintroduction plots.

The reintroduction sites were carefully selected by the PTB team. Finding good habitat requires expertise to determine sediment size, beach slope, and the abundance and diversity of prey that PTBs prefer. To be reintroduced, PTB larvae are transported to the site, each in their own small sand-filled vial, and released into plotted-areas on the beach where they immediately dig vertical tunnels in the sand to develop through their instar stages. 

Volunteers release PTB larva into the sand.

Over the next 2 years, the PTB team will revisit the reintroduction sites to count the number of PTB burrows and adult beetles, which will indicate the success and survival rate of the lab-reared PTBs.

Stay tuned for 2018 updates on the PTBs!
A diamondback terrapin about to be released by Laura Francoeur, chief wildlife biologist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Laura.

Why does the terrapin cross the runway?

Yes, that's a diamondback terrapin  crossing a taxiway at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Credit: Port Authority of NY & NJ.

Yes, that’s a diamondback terrapin crossing a taxiway at John F. Kennedy International Airport! Credit: Port Authority of NY & NJ

Today you're hearing from Laura Francoeur, chief wildlife biologist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Laura.

Today you’re hearing from one of our partners, Laura Francoeur, chief wildlife biologist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Laura.

It was the summer of 2011, and we had 20 female diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) crawling across the taxiways and runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, N.Y.

Airport operations staff scrambled to pick them all up. Aircraft pilots discussed the terrapins on the radio with the air traffic control tower.

And just when we would try to reopen the runway, another terrapin would be spotted. The 10-15 minutes felt like hours. Sure, it was a serious issue, but watching the terrapins cross oblivious to the vehicles and aircraft was also amusing.

This annual terrapin rite occurs at JFK every June and July, when female terrapins come out of Jamaica Bay looking for nest sites above the high tide line in sandy or loose soil.

While no one knows exactly how long the terrapins have nested in Jamaica Bay, we do know that it has been happening since the late 19th and early 20th century, when turtle soup was a popular dish at many local New York City restaurants.

Years ago, we only observed small numbers of terrapins at JFK. If we spotted terrapins, we picked them up and carried them to the other side of the road. Following an extremely rainy spring in 2009, we observed hundreds of terrapins at JFK. On peak days, there were almost 200 terrapins nesting during a 1-hour period. Aircraft traffic also peaks during the summer months, which led to a couple of brief delays while airport operations staff moved terrapins off the runway.

Those delays can create a ripple effect, causing aircraft traffic delays at airports across the country and the world, so the airport soon contacted local terrapin experts for information on the strange phenomenon.

Measuring the terrapin shell. Credit: Port Authority of NY & NJ

Measuring the terrapin shell. Credit: Port Authority of NY & NJ

Starting in 2010, staff at JFK picked up all terrapins and collected data on the size and age, marked them, and then released them. We inserted a scannable microchip (PIT tag) into each terrapin that is similar to what veterinarians use to identify lost cats and dogs. We then monitored individual terrapins and shared data with the wildlife biologists working across from the airport at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, managed by the National Park Service.

So far, the data shows that the terrapins nest on similar dates within Jamaica Bay; however, there are a lot more terrapins nesting at the airport, and they appear to be younger than those at the wildlife refuge.

Laura talks about the terrapins at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Photo courtesy of Laura.

Laura talks about the terrapins at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Photo courtesy of Laura.

In 2012, JFK airport staff collected, marked and released more than 1,300 terrapins during a 6-week period. There’s been a lot of community interest in the terrapins, too. In fact, if I went to the grocery store after work with my airport coat on or my badge still around my neck, people would stop me to say that they’d heard about the terrapins at the airport and want to know more about it.

To reduce the terrapins’ impact on aircraft traffic, the airport set up two types of test barriers to try to deter the terrapins from one of the runways most impacted by nesting activity. Those tests showed that terrapins were not able to climb over the barriers and some terrapins navigated around the barriers while others simply found available nesting sites adjacent to the barriers.

Terrapin barrier at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Credit: Port Authority of NY & NJ

Terrapin barrier at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Credit: Port Authority of NY & NJ

This led to a permanent barrier installation in 2013. While the barriers are not yet completely installed, there is ample nesting habitat for the terrapins outside the barriers, and the barriers prevent them from having to cross taxiways and runways and risk being struck by a vehicle or aircraft.

The JFK airport wildlife biologists will monitor the terrapin activity in 2014 to see how effective the barrier is and if the terrapins choose to nest in available habitat outside the barrier or shift to new locations on the airport.

While I never thought I would be working with nesting turtles at JFK, it’s been a nice break from our typical bird issues, and I’ve met some great herpetologists with whom I may never have crossed paths.