Thursday, October 6, 2016

Critter Tales: Phil and Jerry

By Dani Gariglio, communications intern

Two resident Diamondback Terrapins call Save The Bay’s Exploration Center home. Meet Phil and Jerry, at one time strangers, but now two peas in a pod.

Jerry, though smaller in stature, is bold and boisterous as he tries to push around his adoptive big sister, Phil, who is nearly twice his size. And even though Jerry thinks he’s in charge, it’s really Phil who calls the shots.

As kids crowd the Exploration Center, pushing and shoving to get a front row view of the critters, Phil and Jerry appear to be doing the same. In an attempt to get a good view, Jerry begins taking a few laps around the tank. Effortlessly gliding through the water as if there’s a jetpack on his back, he picks up speed and rams into Phil, who has comfortably taken a front row seat to stare at their visitors. Instantly Phil stretches out her lengthy limbs and winds up to knock Jerry right in the head! Jerry immediately backs down, but Phil must have felt bad about the tussle, because the two go on to drift through the tank together. It looks like Phil even gives Jerry a piggyback ride when Jerry floats directly above Phil’s back and they move in sync like a well-oiled machine!

Phil and Jerry are Save The Bay’s representatives of the endangered terrapins turtle species in Rhode Island. Most distinguishable by the diamond shaped mountainous peaks on their shells, these turtles can live anywhere from 25­–40 years old and can grow to be 5–7.5 inches in length. Terrapins are native to the northern Atlantic coast of the Eastern United States and can often be found in brackish ponds and salt marshes where they nest and raise their hatchlings in the Narragansett Bay of Rhode Island. Though an endangered and small species, these critters play a crucial role in the overall health of the Narragansett Bay. Because they often inhabit the salt marshes of Rhode Island, if salt marshes begin to dissipate so too will the terrapins. And because terrapins spend their time both on land and in the water, the extinction of these critters would disrupt links in the food chains in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The absence of terrapins would lead to poorer health of sea grass beds, which are important breeding habitat for many species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans, and stunt the growth of dune vegetation, which could eventually lead to dangerous beach erosion. Without terrapins, the shoreline ecosystem would suffer a massive imbalance, ultimately damaging the health of the surrounding environment.

Among the Exploration Center’s two resident terrapins, Jerry is the younger of the two and first arrived as just a hatchling, about the size of a quarter. A researcher who studied terrapins found Jerry in an untouched salt marsh, but noticed that the hatchling was missing his upper jaw. Knowing the turtle would be unable to eat and survive on his own in the wild, the researcher brought him to Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium, where he has thrived for the past four years. Despite some trouble with eating at first, Jerry adjusted to his disability and has grown to love his new home with Save The Bay.

Phyllis, more commonly known as Phil, was found in the wild by a local resident–we’ll call her Sue–who thought the turtle was lost and took her home. But in all reality, turtles like Phil don’t really get “lost”.

“Terrapins stay at the same nesting site year after year and have coding in their DNA that drives them to return to the same site,” Exploration Center Manager Adam Kovarsky explained. “This is called site fidelity, which is strong in this species.”

Phil stayed with Sue for several months until Sue realized that owning Phil as a pet and disturbing a terrapin’s natural habitat is illegal in Rhode Island. Sue contacted Save The Bay to try to find a better home for Phil. Since Phil had been removed from the wild for so long and had lost much of her natural instinct, Kovarsky turned to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for advice, who suggested that Phil’s best chance of survival would be to receive care at the Aquarium.

Diamondback Terrapins like Phil and Jerry face endangerment because of habitat loss due to rising water levels from climate change, human development and pollution. However, this last year more nesting sites have been discovered in Rhode Island, which Kovarsky described as, a huge win for this species!

To meet Phil and Jerry and the rest of Save The Bay’s friendly critters, visit the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium in at Easton’s Beach in Newport, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

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