Mattapoisett students help diamondback terrapin get head start on survival

Jan 25, 2022

This school year, students at Center and Old Hammondtown schools have a new classmate, one that swims in a tank rather than sits at a desk.

Bubbles, as the students have named him, is a diamondback terrapin, a type of turtle that is listed as threatened in Massachusetts because of habitat loss and predation. He is transported between schools by Ben Squire, Old Rochester Regional district science coordinator to allow as many students as possible to learn about the turtle. 

His time in the classrooms will help the students learn more about the diamondbacks, while allowing the turtle to grow in a safe environment. Toward the end of the school year, the turtle will be released back into the wild, with better chances of surviving, thriving and bolstering the area population.

And the students, Squire said, will be inspired to take steps to protect endangered animals and recognize how close to home these creatures can be found. 

Having a living creature in the classroom reflects his enthusiasm for real-world learning. “My whole thing is making science as real as possible, as hands-on as possible.’’

Squire received the turtle from Northeast Coastal Wildlife Alliance, an organization dedicated to preservation and conservation. The organization works to preserve and protect diamondback terrapins and other marine species.

Unlike most turtles, diamondbacks live in coastal salt marshes in brackish water, a mix of salt and fresh. Because of the abundance of coastal marshes in the area, they can be found, literally, in Tri-town backyards, 

But they face great challenges to their survival. 

The turtle has been classified as endangered, often falling victim to wildlife such as foxes, raccoons, crows and skunks, and loss of habitat. They are also vulnerable to being struck by vehicles or entangled in fishing gear. 

So the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance teamed up with Squire to allow the students to “head start’’ the turtles. Through this project, alliance biologists rescue days-old terrapins from nests, in this case in Wareham, when they are so small and vulnerable that only about one in 50 will survive to adulthood. 

The turtle spends the school year in the tank, where they are regularly fed, with no competition for the food and no worries about predators. 

Squire has been impressed by the animals’ growth. When Bubbles first arrived in the Mattapoisett schools, he was the size of a quarter. 

As of last week, his shell was about an inch and a half wide.

That growth is a crucial reason for these head start programs.

When he “graduates’’ in the spring and is large enough to be released in Wareham, Bubbles will have grown into the size of a five-year-old turtle, said Danielle Marston, marine biologist and director of the Southcoast Diamondback Terrapin Project for the alliance. 

At that size, he is “a lot less likely [to fall victim to] predation,’’ Marston said, and more likely to survive and thrive in the wild.

Bubbles was regularly monitored by the students, who kept track of his growth through regular measurements. Bubbles has also taught them about subjects well beyond science, with kindergarteners learning to count by doling out his food one by one, for example.

The students give their new friend rave reviews.

"My favorite part was the experience of feeding him shrimp,’’ said Rylan A., a first grader.

Third grader Kenzie A. enjoyed “ seeing how fast he swims with his webbed feet."

“It is great having Bubbles,’’ fourth grader Ellie C. said. “We learn about how and why he is endangered and how we can help him from becoming extinct."

Squire hopes its impact reaches far into the future.

“I want the kids to look around and say, ‘OK, this is in my backyard’ and take an interest’’ in local issues. 

And he already has a goal for the future. “I’m hoping to have a turtle for each school next year.’’

Follow Bubbles’ progress on Instagram @seahorsescience.