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An old familiar friend

It was March 23, 2019 when reporting on a sudden burst of activity in the wetlands, flowers blooming, frogs breeding, geese nesting, dragonflies emerging, and turtles crowding onto every available basking perch soaking up the warm spring sunshine that I remarked “I haven’t seen Chip out yet this year.”

Chip is one of the largest sliders in the wetlands, an aquatic turtle, and as far as I know, she was one of the oldest. She’s the largest slider I’ve measured, coming in at 11 7/8” from front of shell to back (In the past I would capture, measure, and mark turtles as they came ashore each year to lay eggs – licensed by the state). Chip was often one of the first turtles out basking. We’d see her on sunny February days. And, due to a large piece of the left side of her shell damaged and missing, she was given the nick-name “Chip.” She was easily identified among the other turtles out basking.

Chip out on a wetland rock on a rainy February Day in 2016.
Chip (center) basking with a group on a partially submerged log.

Her shell was injured years before I started working at the museum (13 some years ago) when she was struck by machinery and, after some consideration, placed into the wetlands. The shell grew over, ossified, and she had many apparently healthy years in our wetland pond. Slider longevity is listed at 30 years.

During the warmer months she was sometimes seen hiking along museum roads and paths looking for suitable nesting sites. She was a traveler for sure. On three consecutive summer days I saw her at the train station, train tunnel, and in Catch the Wind. Those are respectable overland treks for an aquatic turtle. Over the years, many of the other nesting turtles exhibited nest-site fidelity and would be seen in the same locations year after year. Chip got around. She was everywhere.

Heading out on a search for a nest site.

In June of 2011 she was discovered laying eggs between two closely set loblolly pines in Catch the Wind, at the entrance to what is now Earth Moves. While monitoring her nest site, I noticed her eggs hadn’t yet hatched well into September. It was a drought year and the clay soil we have here on the Carolina Piedmont was rock-hard. We decided to dig up her nest.

Chip in June 2011 at nest site which was later dug up.

Aquatic turtles come ashore each year searching for suitably private locations to lay eggs. Once they find a likely site, they first urinate, softening the hard clay soil making the digging a bit easier. Four to a dozen eggs are deposited in the subterranean nest chamber. The turtles then meticulously cover the eggs leaving the site looking as it had before they arrived.

If not dug up and eaten by raccoons or foxes, the eggs may take from 60 – 90 days to hatch. I’m not sure I was aware of this at the time but if the eggs hatch late in the season the hatchlings may overwinter in the nest. The nestlings dig themselves out the following spring spending as many as 250 – 270 days or more in the chamber.

We discovered 7 nestlings, five of them alive and apparently well. We made arrangements for one of our animal keepers who had had experience with aquatic turtles to keep the young sliders over the winter. We released the same five sliders into the wetlands the following April (4/9/2012).

Five nestlings were rescued from Chip’s nest in fall of 2011 (note runt at bottom right).
Five of Chip’s young, moments before release into wetlands in April 2012 (note runt, bottom left).

Chip finally made an appearance during the spring of 2019, a bit late, but looking well.

Then came 2020. By March, the museum had closed down due to Covid 19, staff was cut to a minimum, essential workers only, those necessary to maintain the grounds and animals.

When we re-opened to limited visitation in July, I once again searched for Chip on some of her favorite basking perches or along the paths and service roads on the chance she was out searching for nest sites. There were many other turtles out seeking sunshine and nesting sites, but no Chip.

It was sometime in late July 2020 when the empty shell of a large slider was spotted in the water next to a small islet just off the boardwalk in Explore the Wild. I took photos of the shell and contemplated it through binoculars, but was never able to get a suitable view to link it to Chip.

Turtle shell just off islet in wetlands during summer 2020.
Can not make out damage to left side of shell.

The shell was still in the same location when, on March 4, 2021 Ranger Brooke decided to strap on a pair hip boots and walk over to the island to retrieve the shell and find out once and for all if it was, as suspected, Chip. It was.

Brooke sets out to recover shell from island with encouragement from Rangers Martha and Robert.
Water nearly topping her hips boots, Brooke carries on with her mission.
Brooke returns, shell in hand.
There was no doubt who had once called this shell home.

Chip was a familiar sight out on the wetlands. Many people, both staff and visitor alike, have seen and recognized her throughout the years. It was always a pleasure, and reassuring, to see her out basking for the first time each season and occasionally see her up along the paths heading out to once again dig a nest, deposit her eggs and head back to the water as her kind has done for many millions of years before her.

She will not be forgotten.

Chip out basking with a friend in 2016.