Bayley's Way Back Home
“Bayley” is a captive, female diamondback terrapin that is housed at the Nature Center at Island Beach State Park, NJ. She is sharing a display with another female terrapin, “Ellie” that cannot be released back to the wild as she has a vision problem. Bayley’s story is about her journey from the wild into captivity and trying to get back home. It started with an email on October 14, 2019 by Barbara Brennessel through the Diamondback Terrapin Working Group list serve with a posted PIT tag code of a diamondback terrapin that was housed in Maine and purchased at a reptile expo. Barbara reached out to determine if “this female (terrapin) was tagged in anyone’s study?” The PIT tag (492A5C6462) was scanned by Dr. Laura Leighton, veterinarian, who contacted the New England Aquarium that started the correspondence with Barbara to identify any study that may have marked the captive female terrapin. On October 15, 2019 we identified the female terrapin as being originally marked on June 20, 2008 by Claire Sheridan as part of a Barnegat Bay, NJ study under Principal Investigator Harold W. Avery. At the time of her initial capture she was aged at 7 years (using plastron annuli) and weighed 805 grams. Since, she was subsequently recaptured in 2013 by Ben Wurst, Biologist, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, who is coordinating a terrapin population study at Great Bay Boulevard. Since that time, there was nothing known about Bayley until 2019, but she was a victim of the illegal pet trade and possibly used in captive breeding.
Special Agents from US Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement worked with New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement, and the Endangered and Non-Game Species Program to obtain more details on where Bayley may have housed and sold. Prior to 2016, New Jersey had a seasonal harvest on terrapins which was legal the end of November through March each year as long as the terrapins were at least 5” (carapace length) and not taken using dredges, nets, rakes, and other mechanical means; however, legislation was passed that and signed into law by NJ Governor Chris Christie in July 2016, making it illegal to harvest terrapins. There was a specific incident prior to 2016 that moved this law when over 4300 terrapins were harvested and sold to a breeding facility in Maryland over a two year period of time. It was determined that the first year, 3500 terrapins (mostly adult females) were legally captured, but the following year, it was determined that the hundreds of terrapins were taken using illegal dredging practices. The area where this mass harvest took place was 30 minutes south of the habitat in which Bayley lived.
Since the illegal harvest law in 2016, there has been a case where Dave Sommers, Pennsylvania, illegally dug up terrapin eggs and took adult females from Great Bay Boulevard, the same location where “Bayley” was taken (see article). After an investigation during the summer of 2017 by NJ Division of Wildlife Conservation Officers, in August 2019, Dave Sommers was prosecuted and sentenced to six months in prison, six month probation, and a $250,000 restitution fine for possessing over 3400 diamondback terrapins (adult females and hatchlings) at his home in Levittown, PA. This activity by Dave Sommers took place over five years. The exact date and year that Bayley was taken is uncertain; however, her captivity led her to Pennsylvania, Tennessee and eventually Maine, where she was identified and surrendered. Thanks to Jordan Gray of the Turtle Survival Alliance, Bayley was transported back to New Jersey where she was received by the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science (MATES) Project Terrapin, NJ. It was determined by wildlife biologists and terrapin experts that she needed to be quarantined and evaluated for health to be considered for release back into the wild. The Nature Center at Island Beach State Park was an ideal location to house Bayley. At IBSP, she was named during a social media campaign to promote awareness of her captive status. New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist Brian Zarate, along with Dr. Nicole Lewis, veterinarian, established a protocol for Bayley’s potential release, which included a health assessment component. The goal was to assess 30 wild adult terrapins from the Great Bay population, along with Bayley and her tank mate, Ellie. All terrapins were tested for Ranavirus, Herpesvirus, blood parasites, fecal pathogens, blood chemistry and Mycoplasma spp. Both Bayley and Ellie were negative for all tests, and the 30 wild individual test results indicate that the health conditions are conducive for Bayley’s release back to the wild. However, it was recommended that Bayley quarantine longer and we develop a release plan to transition her gradually into the system and ensure that she was able to eat live prey items. The Island Beach State Park staff collected live fiddler crabs and snails. They transitioned Bayley to feed on the live crabs. Bayley was also transitioned into deeper water by providing her deep water dive trials at the MATES School, where she was able to acclimate to searching for prey items in water 3 feet (~1 m). Bayley was released back at Great Bay Boulevard on June 19, 2023. Bayley’s case study serves as a model for introducing adult diamondback terrapins back into the population. It also emphasizes the importance of mark and recapture studies, and how one PIT tag can lead to an illegally captured terrapin getting back home.