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Volunteers helped tally terrapin turtles for science


Scientists want to know more about a little turtle called a terrapin, so they've asked volunteers to help count them. Kelly Kenoyer with member station WHQR in Wilmington, N.C., went on a quest to spot these reclusive turtles.

KELLY KENOYER, BYLINE: It's a short ferry ride to get to Bald Head Island, a conservation area at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, where I plan to paddle around, counting turtles.


KENOYER: This is the annual Terrapin Tally, a citizen science initiative.

ELENA KELLY: Yeah. So they're super, super pretty.

KENOYER: Elena Kelly is with the Bald Head Island's Conservancy and joined this year's tally.

KELLY: Their shells have, on each of the scuta - the scales, almost - it's, like, rings of light and dark. And then their actual skin is, like, pale, silvery white, with polka dots on them.

KENOYER: Terrapins live in the brackish waters of the Intracoastal Waterway, between the barrier islands and the mainland. They're small, 6 to 9 inches, and just barely poke above the waves when they come up for air. Sarah Finn is a state biologist who helps train volunteers to spot the turtles from kayaks.

SARAH FINN: So their heads are only a few inches long. So you're looking for just a little brief blip of a head poking out of the water and then going back down.

KENOYER: Terrapins used to be really common. Their range runs from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico. But Finn says they were hunted heavily in the early 20th century.

FINN: Back before the Great Depression, they were considered a delicacy item. Turtle soup was served in the White House under President Taft.

KENOYER: That changed with the Great Depression, when no one could afford to eat the reclusive turtles. And Prohibition kept sherry out of restaurants, which is a key ingredient in turtle soup recipes.

Although economic and cultural changes took turtles off American menus, the terrapin population has struggled to recover ever since. It takes generations for their populations to rebound. In North Carolina, it's now listed as a species of special concern. The state wants more data, and that's where the volunteers come in.

HOPE SUTTON: In North Carolina, we have extensive area of marsh habitat.

KENOYER: Hope Sutton helped start the Terrapin Tally nine years ago, when she realized how hard it would be to get the data she needed.

SUTTON: I mean, we're talking - what? - it's, like, 300,000 acres. So for any single researcher or small research team, that's just - you know, that's an inconceivable number of hours that you would have to spend out there doing surveys.


KENOYER: I only covered 2 1/2 miles in a few hours, but I was determined to see the tiny terrapin heads popping out of the water. After about 50 minutes, I got my chance.

I think I might have seen a terrapin. I just saw, like, this little black dot poke out of the - I think I just saw it again.

I'm using an app to share data. It has a geo tracker.

OK. So filling out the survey - Bald Head Island, Village Creek East. Current time - 10:59 a.m.

I'm just one of 150 volunteers who joined the Terrapin Tally this year. And now, even my single turtle sighting is part of official scientific data.

For NPR News, I'm Kelly Kenoyer in Wilmington, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly Kenoyer