I was hired as an Assistant Professor by Hofstra University in fall 1996, and I was excited about the prospects for doing research on wildlife in the area. I was already spending a good part of my springs and early summers on what I planned to be a long term field project on wood turtles in northern New Jersey, and I wanted to expand that project to their two close relatives, bog turtles and spotted turtles. I was looking for graduate students who could help me do that.
Jeremy Feinberg contacted me the next summer (1997) and I invited him into my lab as my first graduate student. I strongly encouraged him to join me in New Jersey, but he really didn’t want to work on a project so far from home. This was to be the first of many times Jeremy benefitted from not following my advice.
He told me instead about seeing lots of predated turtle nests at nearby Jamaica Bay, where it looked like hundreds of diamondback terrapins nested. I didn’t know anything about terrapins and was reluctant to start working on a new species, but the large numbers of nests intrigued me. Not much was known about terrapins, and it didn’t take long to read all that had been published on this species. A little work had already been done at Jamaica Bay. Jeremy showed me around the West Pond Trail at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of Gateway National Recreation Area, and it looked promising. We got permits from the National Park Service to begin some work the next year.
I continued spending my field time in New Jersey as Jeremy conducted basic research at Jamaica Bay in 1998 and 1999. He rounded up a team of volunteers to help him, he caught and marked nesting terrapins, he marked nests and monitored predation and hatching. He used basic turtle ecology field techniques I had learned when I was a graduate student to estimate the total number of nests. He used GIS maps to locate all potential nesting habitat within Gateway National Recreation Area, and visited nearly all of these areas to check for nesting activity. He showed that nesting activity was closely linked to high tide, and that Jamaica Bay did indeed have a very large terrapin population. However, raccoons were the primary nest predator, eating 92% of eggs, and usually within a few days of being laid. Jeremy found some females nested at least twice per summer, and strong evidence that some nested three times per summer. One of Jeremy’s most notable efforts in both 1998 and 1999 was to actually count each and every depredated nest he could find throughout the entire main nesting island—totaling 1,303 and 1,822 nests respectively during the two years. This was a massive undertaking using an approach that is typically avoided and done instead through estimates that are far less intensive and time consuming.
Jeremy completed his M.S in Biology (with Distinction) in May 2000, and published his terrapin work in a high quality scientific journal the same year. Our paper has been cited by 83 other scientific publications so far.
For the most part, the work that Jeremy did was basic natural history, the sort of observations that are raw material for sophisticated science. This was especially important because little work along these lines had been done on terrapins, and almost none in the northern part of their range, and therefore little was known about this species. I became intrigued by this species that lived in the narrow interface of fresh and salt water, doing what no other turtles do. As new undergraduate and graduate students joined my lab, we increasingly focused on terrapins. At this point (2015) the project that Jeremy started has been the subject of 13 Master’s student projects (4 current), and numerous undergraduate student projects. We’re helped by changing group of 10-30 citizen scientists every summer, many of which had never been to JB before. Alexandra Kanonik, whose contributions are difficult to overestimate, joined the project in 2008. She started as a volunteer but her enthusiasm, hard work, intellectual contributions, and love for the terrapins have been vital to the on-going success of the Jamaica Bay terrapin project. We’ve published 11 papers in scientific journals on our work there and numerous popular articles. As an example, that first paper is bookended by one of our most recent papers (Burke, RL, M Vargas, and A Kanonik 2015) where we tested a new method of deterring raccoon predation using cayenne pepper powder (it didn’t work). In between these two we were the first to discover the surprising amount of time terrapin hatchlings spend on land instead of water, and we’ve worked out ways to apply the methods we’ve perfected to state-wide and region-wide census projects. So while we continue to focus on Jamaica Bay terrapins, we have projects throughout the northeast. We never guessed that a simple start would have turned out to be such a goldmine in terms of research that is fast approaching the 20th anniversary of its first year. While so much has been learned, we expect much more to come through future research.