We here at the intern house are increasing in number. When I arrived in January, I became the second occupant and second lemur tamer (which sounds way cooler than “temporary keeper,” our official title) on the premises. Then, approximately two months ago, the oystercatcher intern came aboard. Very recently, a fourth intern joined in. I came home a few days ago to find that intern number four had brought herps into the house. Herps are an affectionate term for ectothermic tetrapods, otherwise known as reptiles and amphibians. The word is a shortened form of herpetology, which is the study of said critters. Between the four of us, we’ve got most of the major animal groups covered: mammals, herps, and avians. We’d need an entomology intern and an ichthyology intern to round out the set. But, by the time this article posts, we’ll have added a couple more herpetologists and be full up on interns.
The current herpetology intern studies diamondback terrapins (a kind of turtle) and he’d caught two egg-laden females on the day in question. Aside from the Terrapin Beer Company logo, I’d never seen a terrapin, although I knew we had them on the island. Instead of living on the island’s interior like the gopher tortoises, or in the ocean like the loggerheads, terrapins make their homes somewhere in the middle, in our bays and estuaries. They prefer the brackish west coast of the island to the salty tumultuous east. The two terrapins who struggled to escape water buckets in our living room were each eighteen centimeters long from shell tip to shell tip and that’s about average for females of the species (Malaclemys terrapin). I picked one up and its shell was smooth, like polished mahogany. Begging the turtle’s pardon, I gently prodded the bulges on either side of her tail and I could feel the eggs inside. Only the outermost eggs were detectable - each one being about one and a half inches long - so there was no way for me to tell how many she held within. The average clutch contains about nine eggs. She was not a happy turtle and tried to slice me with the claws on her webbed hind feet when she wasn’t snapping her jaws at my fingertips. It didn’t take much convincing for me to hand her off to my roommate, who was preparing to inject her with a pit tag. This will enable anyone who catches her in the future to know she’s already been caught and measured.
Each day, Intern Four ventures out to search for nesting sites. Diamondback terrapins, like most reptiles, don’t stick around to see how the hatchlings turn out. So, it’s difficult to catch them on shore except for when they’re laying eggs. Like Intern Three (the oystercatcher guy), he often finds that nests have been raided by pigs or raccoons. Alligators like to snack on the adults, and until the 1920’s, people did too. As could be expected, this resulted in a great decline in terrapin populations. But – according to the Tybee Island Marine Science Center – the arrival of prohibition brought an end to the wine-based soup the turtles were cooked in. I’ve never tasted turtle soup myself and don’t think I know anyone who has. However, terrapins face a slew of other man-made hazards such as accidental capture in crab cages and habitat destruction. Intern Four’s research will help to discover the demographics of St. Catherines’ population and determine what conservation efforts might need to be taken. The diamondback terrapin are relatively common in Georgia, but are considered a species of “special concern” in Connecticut, where they are protected by state regulations. Hopefully, similar measures won’t have to be taken in the southern part of their range, which ends in the Bahamas.
One thing that struck me about the two bucket-bound turtles was how different they were from one another. Their shells were both slick and streamlined, elaborately decorated in colorful concentric rings, but the skin on their feet and necks was remarkably individual. One had what I’d describe as leopard spots and the other had pinprick-sized polka dots. Lemurs, by comparison, are not wildly varied in their markings. It took me several weeks before I could even tell them apart without looking at the color of their radio collars. Now, of course, I’ve gotten to know them all much better. Some have angry eyebrows, others disheveled ear tufts, and a few even have missing fingers. I wonder if we humans all look the same to them. Maybe we all sound and smell the same too. To be honest, the lemurs rarely seem to take their eyes off my hands, checking to see if I’ve brought treats. Hey lemurs, my eyes are up here.