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Keeping Terrapins Away from JFK

An adult Diamondback terrapin too close to the JFK runway. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

An adult Diamondback terrapin too close to the JFK runway. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

It’s been a busy spring for USDA Wildlife Services’ biologist Jenny Mastantuono and her staff, who work at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport solving wildlife conflicts with people and planes.

One troublesome visitor is the Diamondback terrapin – a type of turtle that prefers to live in brackish marshes. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge around JFK is a favored habitat for these reptiles. In the late spring, they crawl on to land to lay their eggs in the sandy soils near the airport, often crossing runways to do so. Terrapins on the runway pose a threat to aircraft using the runways. If the terrapins get hit by a plane, their carcass can attract scavengers like gulls which may pose an even greater danger to airline safety.

In addition to the adult terrapin movements in late spring, the previous years’ clutch hatches in the early spring, emerging from their nests and crawling across the runways and taxiways back to the water.  These young terrapins can attract predators like herons and gulls—presenting a strike hazard. Any debris or animal on the runway—regardless of size—is a threat to airline passenger safety and a concern for airport operations and Wildlife Services biologists.

A USDA Wildlife Services biologist holds a newly hatched Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) rescued from a runway at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport. Terrapin young emerge from their nests in spring.  Scavengers and raptors attracted to the young pose a safety hazard to aircraft. The biologists at JFK move the young back to the water to safety. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

A USDA Wildlife Services biologist holds a newly hatched Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) rescued from a runway at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport. Terrapin young emerge from their nests in spring. Scavengers and raptors attracted to the young pose a safety hazard to aircraft. The biologists at JFK move the young back to the water to safety. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

While terrapin trouble is a problem unique to JFK, seasonal issues with wildlife are common at any airport. Wildlife Services biologists monitor seasonal wildlife behavior changes like migration patterns so they can predict and resolve conflicts with humans ahead of time, preferably using nonlethal methods. The adult terrapins at JFK temporarily halted air traffic in 2011, and Wildlife Services is watching the runways to prevent any conflicts this year as well.

Jenny and the USDA Wildlife Services staff at JFK scare away wildlife with a number of technical solutions like pyrotechnics and noise making devices that help to prevent airline strikes with wildlife.

“Work at JFK International Airport has provided me with unique experiences and continues to prove to be a fascinating place to work,” says Mastantuono.

Wildlife biologists at JFK have worked to redirect the terrapins in out of harm’s way and more directly to areas that are suitable for nesting.

A close-up of an adult Diamondback terrapin. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

A close-up of an adult Diamondback terrapin. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

A newly hatched diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) rescued from a runway at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport. Terrapin young emerge from their nests in spring.  Scavengers and raptors attracted to the young pose a safety hazard to aircraft. The biologists at JFK move the young back to the water to safety. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

A newly hatched diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) rescued from a runway at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport. Terrapin young emerge from their nests in spring. Scavengers and raptors attracted to the young pose a safety hazard to aircraft. The biologists at JFK move the young back to the water to safety. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

Adult Diamondback terrapins in the bed of a truck being moved to safety. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

Adult Diamondback terrapins in the bed of a truck being moved to safety. Courtesy of Jenny Mastanuono.

4 Responses to “Keeping Terrapins Away from JFK”

  1. Stephen Clark says:

    We had a diamondback visit us in the parking lot at the Plant Inspection Station at JFK last week. Myself and another officer moved it back into the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Maybe next time we’ll give you a call.:)

  2. Helen McCracken says:

    You are my hero Jenny!!!! I love turtles! Thank you for saving them! Helen

  3. David says:

    Has anyone at USDA or JFK ever considered planting turfgrass? http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/let-the-killing-end-flightturf-is-bird-strike-solution/

  4. Sandy Wright says:

    Great job everyone! Thanks for all your hard work!

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