Stafford Chooses Official Reptile

The diamond terrapin is now the official reptile of Stafford Township. (Photo courtesy Dr. John Wnek)

  STAFFORD – New Jersey is one of just 28 states nationwide that claims ownership to an official reptile. Notably, it’s not the same local authorities decided should represent their community.

  At a recent Stafford Township Council meeting, Mayor Greg Myhre and council members voted unanimously to name diamondback terrapins as the township’s official reptile.

  The State of New Jersey designated the bog turtle as its official reptile in 2018. Perhaps government authorities wanted to ensure they picked a distinct selection. The diamondback terrapin became Maryland’s official reptile in 1994.

  To the average eye, turtles, tortoises, and terrapin, might all appear the same. When in doubt, it’s perfectly acceptable to refer to any of egg-laying reptiles as turtles.

  Dr. John Wnek heads up the Project Terrapin team, which supports habitat enhancement throughout the Barnegat Bay watershed. He also teaches at MATES High School and oversees a team of student researchers who focus on diamondback terrapin projects.

  Four MATES students accompanied Wnek to the late May Township Committee to learn the exciting news that their favorite reptile now had an official designation.

  “The recognition is actually important to the area we live in,” said Myhre. “We are right in a tidal marsh eco-system – on the edge of that in Manahawkin Bay.”

  Myhre commended Wnek on the amount of time he has dedicated to terrapins, calling them a keystone species to the environment. A proclamation presented to Wnek also recognized the local educator for his work with students and the environment.

  “Dr. Wnek has devoted his life to environmental and conservation education by earning a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a PH. D in Environmental Sciences,” read Myhre. “Dr. Wnek serves on the boards of various environmental committees, including the Barnegat Bay National Estuary Program Citizen Advisory Committee from its inception in 1995.

  “Dr Wnek was also a valued member of the Ocean County Natural Lands Committee,” Myhre continued. “Since 2002, Dr. Wnek has worked with local terrapin conservation organizations and currently heads Project Terrapin at MATES…”

  Wnek said the first diamondback terrapin was marked approximately 20 years ago in Barnegat Bay. Since then, 6,500-7,000 of the animals have been identified in the local area.

  “1,500 alone came from Cedar Run Dock Road,” said Wnek.

  A separate proclamation presented to the MATES students, recognized them as problem solvers with a demanding curriculum. The school is considered one of the top 25 high schools in the entire nation.

  As part of their work with Project Terrapin, students help educate others on the species and study the reptiles to learn more about them.

  The project also included a partnership with Stafford Township, with signs erected that remind motorists to hit the brakes for turtles.

  Wnek and the students presented information regarding the terrapins with live exhibits. The reason the reptile was a natural selection to represent the community was because of its prevalence in the salt marshes within Stafford Township.

  Terrapins generally nest around this time, with many doing so on Cedar Run and Mill Creek. Additional representative species are found in the refuge area by Cedar Bonnet Island.

  As he held up a terrapin for display, Wnek described the specimen as a yearling that was hatched last fall. They will be released back to the wild.

  “We return the hatchlings back to where they were found,” shared Wnek. “We don’t take them back during the season – but, during the fall.”

  Generally speaking, adult females dominate the diamondback terrapin found on roadways. The focus on awareness seems to be working as far as signs put up by the township.

  Road mortality represents just one threat to terrapins. They can also wind up in crab pots or be subjected to poaching into the illegal pet trade. Conservation officers have attempted to reduce the number of terrapins taken by others for negative purposes.

  “The turtle is important because it’s an indicator of the health of the salt marshes,” Wnek stressed. “Finding them means they are part of a good healthy habitat.”

  Among other things, MATES students have become involved in creating covers to protect nesting areas of the terrapins. Crows and raccoons could otherwise act as predators before the terrapin eggs are hatched. The nesting time is approximately two months in length.