Photograph by Ben Wurst/Conserve Wildlife Foundation
Photograph by Ben Wurst/Conserve Wildlife Foundation

On a warm June afternoon, Carly Sibilia, ’17, hopped in her Chevy SUV and drove down Great Bay Boulevard, a five-mile stretch of concrete along the New Jersey shore. Built in the 1930s to supply a never-completed fish factory in the bay, the road has become another kind of thoroughfare for researchers like Sibilia.

June and July are the prime egg-laying months for the northern diamondback terrapin. As sunset drew nearer and the tide came in, the turtles emerged from the ocean and wobbled their way across Great Bay Boulevard in search of a patch of sand or gravel in which to lay their eggs.

Sibilia drove, scanning the side of the road and, when she spotted a terrapin, pulled over and marked her location with a GPS point. She weighed and measured each turtle, recording these figures and noting whether it carried eggs. Then she made a series of divots in the shell with a file, each notch corresponding with a unique ID code.

Be aware: Turtle crossing

During this time, Sibilia saw nearly 250 terrapin and tagged and measured about half of them. That number was a good sign for the health of the turtles, which are a species of concern in New Jersey after extensive hunting in the early 1900s led to their near-extinction in the area.

But the summer months also draw sun seekers, nature photographers, and sometimes mischief-makers to the Jersey shore. The sight of the turtles can be exciting, but interaction between animals and humans poses risks to the turtle population’s ongoing recovery.

By gathering and analyzing the data on the terrapins, Sibilia and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, where she interned this summer, hope to identify the biggest threats to the population and take steps to better protect the terrapins.

“Is the species still in decline, or are they recovering? What’s the ratio of road kills versus live sightings? Are there less kills this year, or are there more?” Sibilia asks. “If I found one this year in great condition and next year we find it again and it looks like it was slashed by a boat, we can then take notes on what threats this species is still facing.”

Some threats are already apparent. The CWF has asked on several occasions to reduce the boulevard’s speed limit from 50 mph to 25 or 30. Signs warning of turtle crossings have been stolen, and mesh fencing to prevent turtles from crossing at certain stretches has been damaged.

Still, Sibilia saw one important win this summer. A bill banning the hunt or harvest of diamondback terrapins passed the New Jersey house and senate unanimously and was signed into law in July by Gov. Chris Christie.

The inner workings of wildlife conservation are other data points — these in Sibilia’s own development. She came to Richmond as a biology major but knew medical school wasn’t in her future. A year working in a veterinary office steered her away from that interest.

During a Sophomore Scholars in Residence on Protected Lands of the American West, she worked with geography and the environment professors Todd Lookingbill and Peter Smallwood on a book project about the environmental value of historic landmarks. That experience and the summer’s internship at CWF, Sibilia says, have started to lend shape to her next steps. But just like those turtles wobbling along a road, looking for the perfect nesting spot, she’s leaving plenty of room to explore as she searches for a place to land.

“I look at my college experience as a trial-and-error kind of thing,” she says. “It’s hard to say where I’m going to end up, but I think that having all of these different experiences has helped me redirect myself each time. I’m hoping eventually I find the direct path that I’m supposed to be taking, but I don’t even know if that’s a realistic thing that happens or if it just continues to be trial and error.”

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