Tumultuous Tales of Terrapins

Tumultuous Tales of Terrapins

The Northern Diamondback Terrapin is a turtle so tenacious its story is just waiting to be shared. They’re idolized as a mascot and quicker than a hare.

Terrapin Facts

The Northern Diamondback Terrapin calls the marshes of the East Coast home and is the only turtle in North America that lives exclusively in brackish water. This terrific turtle can be quickly distinguished due to its diamond patterned shell and unique smattering of speckles across its skin. Terrapin skin is largely impermeable to salt, which allows them to spend long periods of time in saline water. Speaking of water, terrapins are strong swimmers with webbed back feet. Though terrapins do not typically make long distance migrations, females will travel considerable distances on land to lay clutches of eggs. Terrapins display high site fidelity, meaning they’ll return to the same place to lay their eggs each year.

Terrapins resting. By Martha Johnston
Terrapins resting. By Martha Johnston

Terrapins have a storied history; they have called the Maryland Coastal Bays home long before any of us have! The terrapin’s name is even derived from an Algonquin word meaning neither salt nor freshwater. In the early 20th century, terrapins were considered a delicacy in soups and stews and were hunted to near extinction. The prohibition of terrapin consumption in the mid-20th century increased population rates, but unfortunately populations have still never fully recovered. Tortoises are often regarded as wise, and although terrapins are not tortoises, they are no exception to this rule. A simple turtle at first glance is actually telling the story of hundreds of years in the Maryland Coastal Bays. This keystone species deserves the chance to write another chapter in our watershed.

Threats

Juvenile Terrapin. By MCBP
Juvenile Terrapin. By MCBP

 Today, there are new threats which continue to stand in the way of terrapins safety. Urban development destroys habitat, while roadways pose a serious issue to terrapins landward journeys.As we continue to construct our homes, we demolish theirs. These issues have become so prevalent on the East Coast, that in Rhode Island, terrapins are considered endangered, and in Massachusetts, they have been declared a threatened species.

 

Conservation Efforts

Searching for terrapins. By Katherine Phillips, MCBP
Searching for terrapins. By Katherine Phillips, MCBP

Terrapin conservation efforts range by state, but here in Maryland, you can help monitor terrapin populations in the Coastal Bays by participating in the Maryland Coastal Bays Program’s Annual Terrapin Survey. This year, the survey will take place from June 1st through June 12th. All ages and levels of experience are welcome to participate, however, attending a virtual training is mandatory. If interested, please reach out to Katherine Phillips at kphillips@mdcoastalbays.org for more information.

About the Author

Maddie Talnagi is currently serving as the MCBP’Chesapeake Conservation Corps member. Maddie is a recent graduate of The College of William & Mary where she studied psychology and history.  At MCBP, Maddie assists with wetland assessments, restoration monitoring, the Oyster Gardening Program, and water quality monitoring efforts. Maddie is passionate about coastal resilience and mitigating the effects of climate change and hopes to continue her education by pursuing a master’s degree in conservation and environmental management.

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