Lonely Planet Writer

Tiny turtles may cause flight delays at JFK airport over annual mating ritual

 Travellers taking off from one of the world’s busiest airports are being warned they may face minor delays to their take off time, as tiny turtles are invading the runway.

Jets line up at JFK Airport
Jets line up at JFK Airport Image by Mark Fischer / CC BY 2.0

Dozens of Diamondback Terrapins have started their mass exodus across the runway at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport as their annual mating ritual kicks into swing.

The tiny turtles traditionally call the salt marshes in the nearby Jamaica Bay their home.  But during mating season, specifically the month long nesting season which typically falls in June and July, the turtles attempt to cross runway 4L to lay their eggs in the sand.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has employed a dedicated team to study their migration habits and movements in a bid to keep them off the runway for their own protection, as well as the safety of airline staff and passengers.

A diamondback terrapin.
A diamondback terrapin. Image by Getty Images

Laura Francoeur is chief wildlife biologist with the airport chiefs and she said ‘anything can be a hazard to aircraft’.

She explained:  ‘Keeping terrapins off [the runways] saves the terrapins so they don’t get run over potentially, and it also helps eliminate any operational impacts delaying flights at the airport.’

As soon as a turtle is spotted, staff rescue them which can sometimes cause minor delays of a couple of minutes to flights.

Some flights are experiencing minor delays.
Some flights are experiencing minor delays. Image by Getty Images

The turtles rescued from airport grounds which are due to lay eggs are immediately released safely to their nesting spots.  Others are ‘tagged, returned to the wild and tracked’.

The first diamondback terrapin exodus was recorded in 2009.  It occurred again in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

Several attempts were made to prevent the turtles accessing the airport runways, including the laying of black plastic tubing.

It has been reported that last year 163 terrapins managed to gain access to airport territory.

An average of 156,000 passengers travelled through JFK airport’s six terminals every day last year.