When Towson University biology professor Richard Seigel began looking for the northern map turtle six years ago along the banks of the Susquehanna, the research project was a decidedly down-home affair.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources provided Seigel with so little money for the project that he often went on his own time, taking along his wife and son with the hope of spotting the shy, endangered reptiles. The work was only supposed to last a year, and the expectations were not high. The population hadn’t been surveyed in 17 years, and there hadn’t been many reports of the turtles in the area.
Six years later, the northern map turtle has become the unofficial mascot of Port Deposit, a town of about 600 residents along the Susquehanna River about 40 miles north of Baltimore. Turtle crossing signs dot the major thoroughfare where the turtles attempt to cross the road to lay their eggs. Residents know to look out for both the turtles — named because of the map-like design on their shell — and the seven Towson students who are tracking them and their eggs through town.
Port Deposit, with the help of state grants and in-kind help, is spending more than $1 million to turn a dilapidated former gas-storage house into a map turtle museum and conservation center, complete with a sandy beach in front for the turtles and laboratory space upstairs for Seigel’s students.
“The whole town has been simply outstanding in their support,” Seigel said. “They would like to have the turtle be a centerpiece, and it is a natural thing for Port Deposit to emphasize. Nothing like this has ever been done before. No one’s ever rebuilt a nesting site and tied it to environmental education.”
The discovery of the shy turtle — which is endangered in Maryland — at a busy marina in Port Deposit has not only shone a spotlight on the town, but also on the university. Towson University’s marketing department developed a commercial for the school around the map turtle, which ran on national television. Seigel’s students’ work has also been featured in National Geographic.
Seigel, who conducts research in waders and a turtle project T-shirt, is thrilled about the attention, but still a little surprised.
“If you had told me that you could find a map turtle in the middle of town, I would tell you that you’d be wrong,” Seigel said. “But that’s the great thing about science — you’re always being proven wrong.”
In the Chesapeake Bay region, the northern map turtle lives only in the Susquehanna River basin. In Maryland, its range is a small area between Garrett Island and Deer and Broad creeks in Harford and Cecil counties.
The turtles can live up to 70 years, and the females have decades of potential nesting seasons, with broods as large as a dozen eggs at a time.
Typically, the turtles hibernate from November until April. Then, they emerge from their underground nests to breed in the rivers. From May to July, the females emerge from the water looking for nests — typically sandy or loamy soils.
With much of the shoreline at Port Deposit hardened, the turtles were in danger. In the first years, Seigel equipped the turtles — whom he and the students named — with radio transmitters. The turtles tried to climb the chain link fence at Tome’s Marina, along Main Street. Twice, a turtle named Ronda nearly met an early end via a UPS truck. Recently, graduate student Kaite Anderson watched a turtle hide in a tree for two hours after becoming disoriented on her way back to the river.
Seigel said that he believes the turtles are returning to the nesting spots where they were born — before there were marinas, condos, rip-rap and flower beds in their places. One of the first phases of the project was to make people aware of the turtles so residents could assist the reptiles in returning to the water.
Another part of the project is mapping where the turtles are nesting. That has meant long hours for Seigel’s students — at times 12-hour days during nesting season — and orange turtle flags in odd spots around town.
On one visit, Seigel advised Anderson on the protocol for digging up turtle eggs and moving a nest that one of the turtles dug alongside the Tome Gas House, which was scheduled for construction. Using a pen, she uncovered the eggs, marked an X on their front side so she could lay them back in without disturbing their embroyonic growth, and moved the nest about 15 feet away.
Turtles like Ronda will nest three or four times each in a season. Other times, the turtles attempt to nest and then return to the river, abandoning their plans. Seigel likes to say that turtles are “solar powered” — they derive their energy from basking in the sun — and sometimes they don’t have the energy to complete the mission.
As the project continued, Seigel found another problem with the turtles’ basking sites. There weren’t enough of them, and the town’s location about nine miles from the Conowingo Dam meant that water levels fluctuated frequently and the turtles became submerged. So Seigel asked Exelon for help. The company’s engineers built the Susquehanna’s first basking platforms and installed them in June; Seigel’s students are checking to see if the turtles are using the platforms.
Exelon also helped the turtles at a second site, in Octoraro Creek. The vegetation was overgrown, and the turtles were forced into a few nesting sites, where raccoons and dogs could easily eat the eggs. No offspring survived. Exelon’s foresters cleaned up the site and provided better landscaping, and the predation rates dropped in half. But Seigel said they were back up again, and the students will investigate why.
Scott Smith, the DNR biologist who funded Seigel’s initial study, figured the predation problems would happen at Port Deposit, not the rural site.
“I think we’re all extremely surprised that the only nests that predators weren’t getting were the ones in town,” he said.
Smith added that he was thrilled to take on a study of an endangered animal and find a much larger population than expected. It’s even more exciting, he said, because Seigel’s study area is only a fraction of the population. Pennsylvania’s map turtle population hasn’t been studied yet, and that state has a much larger swath of the Susquehanna that could be turtle habitat.
“Richard and his students have done a wonderful job,” Smith said. “We always say, ‘it’s the turtle that put Port Deposit on the map.”
Linda Read, the former president of Port Deposit’s Chamber of Commerce, said the town’s getting behind the turtle was an easy decision.
“It comes down to this — if you have a chance to be part of a conservation effort to help maintain a species in its natural habitat, you take it. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. You take a chance that the creature that lived here way before you did will be able to live there way after you.”
The gas house had been an eyesore in town for decades. Tomes Marina, which Read’s husband owns, had donated it to the town, which never had the resources to remodel it.
But the turtle was the spark, Read said. Once state grant funding came in for renovations, Read donated her construction firm’s time and expertise to develop the plans. The new lab space will be particularly nice for Seigel’s students, who sometimes bunk in a renovated bank building in town that Read’s company also owns.
Much of the credit for the town-turtle partnership goes to Teal Richards-Dimitrie, Seigel’s first graduate student on the project. A gregarious people person, Richards-Dimitrie befriended many townspeople — including Read and her husband — and gathered valuable intelligence on the turtles’ nesting spot. It was she who first told Seigel the turtles were attempting to nest along the chain-link fence in the marina. That information came, in part, from Ron Eminson, who services boats at the marina.
“I had seen them for years. I had no idea what they were. No idea they were endangered,” Eminson said. Now, he said, he helps the turtles out “as much as he can” and calls Anderson’s cell phone to report activity.
The turtle efforts may also get a boost when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issues a new operating license for Conowingo Dam. The commission is expected to call for Exelon to develop, and implement, a conservation plan for the turtles.
Since 2012, the Towson map turtle project has counted 138 hatchlings. The project is monitoring so many turtles now that the animals have names, not numbers — though Ronda goes by both her name and #23. On a recent visit, two hatchlings — probably 96 and 88, which Seigel said are among the braver turtles — were basking on a trash boom in front of the marina. They didn’t flinch at the human visitors peering at them through binoculars and clicking away with the cameras.
Smith said that, when it comes to people’s attitudes toward endangered animals, the tide has turned. A decade ago, an endangered bog turtle popped up in Hampstead, a Carroll County town that was attempting to build a bypass. Smith said the town’s politicians embraced the turtle and took its habitat into consideration when building their road.
“People are much better involved now than they were 15–20 years ago,” he said. “Sometimes, endangered species have a negative connotation, because people believe it limits what you can do with your land. But most people, you give them the information, and why conservation is needed, and they will come around.”
It helps that the species in question is a turtle — Seigel’s other projects include Midwestern surveys of rattlesnakes, and Smith handles all manner of loved and unloved reptiles. But Seigel said the bottom line is that communities will respond if the researchers are open, present and respectful.
“This project has been successful because we’ve really been out here,” Seigel said. “If you do what we’ve done here — if you are open with the public, take time to talk to them, and they understand what you’re doing, people will really respond to it.”