By JULIE E. GREENE
4:25 PM EST, December 9, 2012
With his four webbed feet paddling constantly, Squirt treads water in the aquarium tank with his face poking above the water, occasionally diving to the bottom of the tank that sits in a lobby alcove at Conococheague Elementary School.
Slightly older than 4 months, Squirt is a diamondback turtle the school’s fifth-graders are taking care of this school year as part of the National Aquarium’s Terrapins in the Classroom Program.
When Squirt arrived at the school west of Hagerstown, the terrapin weighed about 6 grams and his shell was the size of a half dollar, fifth-grade teacher June Cross said. He weighed approximately 56 grams at his last weigh-in.
Cross referred to Squirt as a “he” and other times as a “she” because the gender of diamondback terrapins can be difficult to determine at such a young age.
Fifth-graders Christopher Andrews, 10, and Kayla Clark, 11, have been weighing and measuring Squirt weekly, as well as checking salinity, and air and water temperatures in the tank. By the end of the school year, all 35 fifth-graders in Cross’ and Ed Pinkham’s classes will have helped care for the terrapin, Cross said.
While other juvenile terrapins born this summer at Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay will bury themselves under mud to hibernate this winter, Squirt and about 29 other juveniles are being cared for by schools, according to program officials.
During a 20-year study from 1987 to 2007, Ohio University Professor Willem Roosenburg saw the terrapin population in the Patuxent River drop to about one-fourth of its original size, he said.
Roosenburg is comparing terrapins like Squirt, who get a head start by eating and growing during winter, to those left in their natural habitat to hibernate, he said. The assumption is the juveniles given a head start will have a greater chance to survive once released into the wild, Roosenburg said in a phone interview.
“If he wasn’t here, he wouldn’t get as big,” said Christopher, after demonstrating how he weighs and measures Squirt.
Squirt eats pellets and beef liver, and was expected to start eating live crickets this week, Cross said.
The information the students gather is sent to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Cross said she plans to have the fifth-graders teach the younger students about the terrapin later this school year. She is hoping a few students can travel to Poplar Island this May to see Squirt released.
Terrapins are the primary predator of snails, which feed primarily on a fungus that grows on the stem of marsh grasses, Roosenburg said. Terrapins keep the snail population in check, preventing loss of salt marsh habitat for aquatic and terrestrial species, including otters, muskrats and birds, he said.
Conococheague has hosted a different diamondback terrapin each year for about seven or eight years, said Lorna Burdick, who started the program at Conococheague Elementary and now teaches at Rockland Woods Elementary south of Hagerstown.
The Claud E. Kitchens Outdoor School at Fairview also is hosting a terrapin, for the fourth year, outdoor resource teacher Eddie Waldron said. The outdoor school’s terrapin is named Terra.
There are approximately 30 schools on a waiting list to participate in the Terrapins in the Classroom Program, said Laura Cattell Noll, program coordinator for the National Aquarium.
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