Changing Chesapeake: Terrapins Coming Back From the Brink

The man-made Poplar Island in the middle of the Chesapeake is bursting with new and unexpected life.

Poplar Island is so popular, new residents no one expected would show up are now moving in daily.

It’s bursting with new life thanks to a massive restoration project using dredged material from the bottom of Baltimore’s shipping channel in the Chesapeake Bay.

The island was once on the verge of extinction, according to Justin Callahan of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “By the time I first got here in 1993, there were about three to five acres left.”

But the island’s vibrant new ecosystem turned the island into a nesting ground for the once-struggling diamond back terrapin, the state’s official reptile.

No one expected this added bonus, Callahan said.

“It wasn’t part of the original goals,” he said. “We have thousands of terrapins hatch each year here at Poplar.”

Some of those hatchlings end up in Maryland classrooms, as part of the "Terrapin Head Start Program," where students care for them through the winter months.

The still tiny turtles are then returned from classrooms, each carefully carried in its own plastic bucket and marked with the name bestowed upon it by the students who raised it.

From Charles County there was a Haley, a Terry, an Echo and a Squirttle. But the most popular name, by far, is Bubbles. There were at least three Bubbles in that batch.

Each hatchling gets tagged on its right back leg. They’re scanned into a computer so students can get updates if they’re ever recaptured by scientists studying their behavior. The island is now home to the nation’s largest terrapin research project.

So far, 130 different schools have nurtured about 180 terrapins through the program.

They’re doing “fantastically” on the island, Callahan said. No one is sure why they’ve thrived there, he said, but the undisturbed sandy shorelines and lack of land predators could be part of the reason. "They have tons of food and tons of shelter."

"If you just looked at this project and you wanted to rate its success, you know, from a wildlife usage standpoint, you'd have to say it's an overwhelming success with the terrapins," Callahan added.

And even though the little guys go away for months, it doesn’t take them long to plop back into the water and feel right at home on the man-made island.

Reported by Tisha Thompson, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

Contact Us