KCMS students release diamondback terrapin on Poplar Island

POPLAR ISLAND — Chestertown to Tilghman Island can be a long drive, especially if you’re riding in a plastic box with air holes punched in the top.

But for a special diamondback terrapin, the school bus trip was a one-way ride home.

For the past year, Shelly has lived in an aquarium at Kent County Middle School in Chestertown as part of a research program.

On Friday, April 26, middle school teachers Samantha Cawthorne and Roberto-Luis Copeland, Shelly, who rode in the aforementioned plastic box, and a group of sixth graders traveled to Tilghman Island in Talbot County.

From there, they took a boat to Poplar Island, which is where Shelly came from as a hatchling.

Shelly was part of the Terrapin Program through Maryland Environmental Service, the agency heading up the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island.

As part of the research program, Shelly spent her first year growing from a tiny hatchling to a young terrapin at Kent County Middle School — before being released back on Poplar Island.

For Copeland, this was his first time raising a terrapin, an experience he described as “amazing.”

“Not only was it truly great for the students to learn more about terrapin ecology and physiology, it was also a good opportunity for students to learn about the environmental impacts we as humans impose on literally our backyard, the Chesapeake Bay,” Copeland said.

Cawthorne said she loved every minute helping raise Shelly, and was very thankful for the experience.

“Seeing the look of awe and excitement in the students’ faces whenever Shelly made her way to my classroom was nothing short of wonderful. The students learned so much about terrapins, and we were very sad to see her go,” Cawthorne said.

For more than a decade, the State of Maryland has been rebuilding Poplar Island.

In its day, there were families that called Poplar Island home.

It also hosted a getaway used by the most powerful people in Washington, D.C., including U.S. presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

The waters of the Chesapeake Bay eroded Poplar Island so much so that by 2000, it was predicted the entire island would soon be washed away.

The Poplar Island restoration site is still under construction.

While no people live on the island today, many species of wildlife now call it home — or at least a stop on their migratory route.

Scientists led by biologist Willem Roosenburg at Ohio University are conducting a study of terrapins on Poplar Island. They locate nests, and count and measure eggs.

“A lack of land predators, undisturbed sandy shorelines and a variety of habitat types make Poplar an ideal terrapin nesting site,” the Terrapin Program website states.

With 800 or so diamondback terrapins — the state reptile of Maryland — hatching annually on Poplar Island, the researchers collect about 150 eggs each year and give the juveniles to schools to raise.

According to the Terrapin Program website, the “head start” program aims to determine if this level of human involvement in terrapins’ early stages of life gives them a better chance in the long run of surviving in the wild.

It also gives students the opportunity to more personally engage with the Bay’s ecosystem.

The Terrapin Program website states: “Through this program, students are playing an important role in relevant, cutting-edge research focused on the conservation of the species. The combination of scientific applications, hands-on involvement and the emotional attachment to the terrapins provides a unique opportunity to inspire a meaningful connection with the Chesapeake Bay.”

Cawthorne and Copeland both said that through releasing Shelly back into the wild, they hope the middle school students learned that any action they take, no matter how large or small, can have a huge impact on the health of the Bay.

The field trip was funded in part by the Kent County Public Schools Education Foundation Fund.

Part of Mid-Shore Community Foundation, the local education foundation fund helps cover the costs of extended field trips, provides mini-grants to teachers and more.

For more information about the Kent County Public Schools Education Foundation Fund, or to make a donation, visit www.kent.k12.md.us/Foundation.aspx.

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