Wildlife

Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Caretta caretta

The loggerhead is one of only seven species of marine turtles still in existence today. Adult loggerheads can grow up to three feet in length and weigh as much as 350 pounds and are believed to have a life span of up to 70 years. The name loggerhead refers to the size of its head, which is larger in proportion to its body than other marine turtles. The loggerheads head and upper shell (carapace) are dark, reddish brown. It’s flippers and lower shell (plastron) are light yellow. The outer layer of plates (scutes) on the loggerheads shell and head can be used to distinguish the various species of marine turtles.

Loggerhead nesting on Kiawah Island usually begins in mid-May and continues into early August. Each nest averages 100-150 eggs. Eggs hatch in approximately two months and the hatchlings after making their way to the surface, travel down the beach, into the surf and continue swimming away from land into the open ocean for several days eventually finding refuge and resting in the sargassum floats. After reaching maturity, female turtles will return again to Kiawah’s beach to repeat the nesting cycle.

Watch the Kiawah Conservancy's NEW Loggerhead Sea Turtle Documentary

Conservation Status:

The loggerhead sea turtle was listed as a threatened species in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act and the State Nongame Act. The highly migratory behavior of sea turtles makes them shared resources among many nations; therefore, sea turtles are protected by various international treaties and agreements as well as national laws

Loggerheads face threats on both nesting beaches and in the marine environment. The greatest cause of decline and the continuing primary threat to loggerhead turtle populations worldwide is incidental capture in fishing gear, primarily in longlines and gillnets, but also in trawls, traps and pots, and dredges.

Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol:

Sea turtle nests on Kiawah Island are monitored annually by the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol, a group of dedicated volunteers. The Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol has been in existence since 1973 and the Town of Kiawah Island has provided funding and logistical support to the program since 1990. During the nesting season, volunteers patrol the entire beach by truck each morning to locate and mark nests that were laid the previous night. Nests found to close to the tide line are moved further inward to protect them from being washed over by high tides. Turtle Patrol volunteers monitor the marked nests daily for emergence of hatchlings. After hatching, each nest is excavated and an inventory is taken of the nest contents. Detailed records are kept of all activities and a report is prepared annually for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

To learn more about sea turtle conservation efforts on Kiawah Island, the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol, types of sea turtles seen locally, and see records from previous years visit www.wildlifeatkiawah.com or www.kiawahturtles.com.

Photo by Kelly Bragg

White-Tailed Deer
Odocoileus virginianus

White-tailed deer are very adaptable creatures, equally at home in forests and fields as well as suburban neighborhoods.  There are approximately 500 deer on Kiawah Island and they can be seen on all parts of the Island, mainly during the hours between dusk and dawn.

Kiawah Island's white-tailed deer are the same species as deer in the Northeast and Midwest, although they are smaller in size.  Their smaller size allows them to cope better with the warm climate of the Southeastern coast.  During the summer, deer are slightly reddish in color; by mid-October they will have attained their winter coat, which is thicker, darker, and gray in color.  One of their most distinguishable characteristics is the white underside of their tail.  Deer raise their tails when they are alarmed as a warning to other nearby deer.  You'll be sure to notice it if you startle deer on your walks around the Island.

Photo by Jim Chitwood
 

Hooded Merganser
Lophodytes cucullatus

Hooded mergansers are common on Kiawah and can be seen frequently in the Island's ponds and marsh areas during the fall and winter months. This ostentatiously crested duck is an all time favorite for birders and photographers on Kiawah Island. The adult male (pictured here) is quite a sight. His sharp white chest is set off by a black back and a magnificent black and white crest.  Beautiful chestnut feathers cover his flanks. The females are less lavisly colored with grey brown feather, while featuring a cinnamon colored crest. The hooded merganser is the second-smallest duck in the merganser species. They have narrow, serrated bills that and eat aquatic insects, crayfish and small fish. They nest in tree cavities and often lay their eggs in other females’ nests. However, they only lay eggs in nests of their own species. The female typically lays 5-13 eggs in a clutch. Ducklings typically leave the nest cavity at only one day old.

Photo by Pamela Cohen

Diamondback Terrapin
Malaclemys terrapin

The diamondback terrapin is Kiawah’s only brackish water turtle. Diamondback terrapins can be found throughout the creeks and rivers surrounding Kiawah Island. Most of the time all you will see is a head sticking up above the water, though terrapins can also be seen sunning on creek banks and females will venture on land in the summer to lay eggs.These terrapins grow are usually between five to eight inches long (females are twice as big as males) and weigh between 0.5 lbs and 1.5 lbs. They get their name from the striking diamond-shaped pattern on their top shell. They are typically light brown or gray on top and yellow to olive on the bottom. Their whitish-gray skin is covered with unique black spots and wavy markings.

Conservation Status:

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, terrapins were considered a culinary delicacy and terrapin soup was a common menu item in most fine restaurants along the Atlantic coast.  For this reason, terrapin populations suffered a significant decline due to over-harvesting.  As the taste for terrapin soup diminished, terrapin populations were able to rebound but they continue to face significant threats at the present time.  One of the biggest threats to our local terrapin population is the accidental death of terrapins in commercial and recreational crab traps. Because of this threat a device, known as a Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD), can be installed into the openings of crab traps to dramatically decrease the likelihood of terrapins being accidentally captured and drowned. Property owners and visitors alike are encouraged to utilize BRDs. If you already own a crab trap, you can take it to the Nature Center at Night Heron Park to be outfitted free of charge with a BRD. If you are planning to purchase a crab trap, ask your vendor if they have traps already fitted with BRDs.

Kiawah Island has been a focal point for terrapin research. Researchers have been capturing and marking terrapins in Kiawah creeks since 1984. Current research is conducted by Dr. Michael Dorcas (Davidson College) with partial funding from the Kiawah Conservancy.

Photo by Pamela Cohen

American Alligator
Alligator mississippiensis

Kiawah Island is home to a very healthy population of American alligators.  They can be seen in almost all of the 183 brackish and freshwater ponds which are interspersed throughout the Island. Most of the alligators seen on Kiawah will be between 3-8 feet in length, though larger alligators up to 11 feet are present in some areas of the Island.

Alligators are cold-blooded which means that they cannot self-regulate their body temperature as humans do. For this reason, alligators are most active during the spring, summer and fall. They will often be seen basking on pond edges in the sun in an attempt to warm their body temperature, especially during colder weather.

In January of 2015, the Kiawah Conservancy announced the undertaking of a new Alligator Study lead by Dr. Louis Guillette. Dr. Guillette is the director of Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences Center and a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at MUSC. He is also the endowed chair of Marine Genomics for the South Carolina Center of Economic Excellence. 

By observing local alligators as "sentinel species," Dr. Guillette's research focuses on how chemicals and contaminants interact with the environment in ways that impact human health. His work often has him out in the field, whether doing research on crocodiles in South Africa or local alligators. In his wildlife biology research for the past 20 years, Dr. Guillette has found links between environmental contaminants and infertility and reproductive issues in alligator populations from Florida to South Carolina.

"People don't appreciate how much wildlife and the things living around us can tell us about the health of the environment and actually tell us something about our own health. As we like to say, if the environment isn't healthy for a baby alligator or a baby dolphin, it probably isn't healthy for us as well." says Dr. Guillette.

The addition of Kiawah Island as a study site in his long-term alligator research effort, will provide critical information on how these long-lived reptiles continue to adapt to rapidly changing environments along the southeastern coastal plain. In addition, information ascertained from the study, along with a better understanding of current and changing conditions, will better equip the Kiawah Conservancy in it's habitat and wildlife preservation efforts.

Currently the researchers have captured and studied more than 26 alligators, taking tissue, blood and urine samples from each. These samples will be analyzed for a variety of toxicological data. Trapping is anticipated to continue throughout the summer with a total of 50 alligators being sampled this year. Researchers are eager to discuss their work, so if you see them while your enjoying a leisurely stroll, don't hesitate to stop and talk with them. They're happy to answer any questions you may have.  You're sure to enjoy the experience and learn some new and interesting facts about our modern dinosaurs. Stay tuned for more updates and information on this exciting study.

Photo by Pamela Cohen
 

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