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Diamondback Terrapin Featured Creature Archive from Tampa Bay Estuary Program


The Diamondback Terrapin lives and breeds in salt marshes and tidal tributaries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Massachusetts to Texas. The Diamondback is the only North American turtle that lives exclusively in brackish water. They prefer unpolluted tidal areas (who don't?) and therefore are good indicators of healthy wetland systems.

Terrapins are strong, fast-swimming turtles with large hind limbs. They are beautifully colored with and intricate pattern of concentric ridges on the carapace and dark spots or streaks on their pale skin. Terrapin are 8-10 inches land and females are usually considerably larger than males. Glands similar to tear ducts near the terrapin's eyes regulate saline levels by excreting extra salt.

Diamondbacks spend their days on mud flats or tidal marshes, feeding on snails, mollusks, crabs and dead fish. At night they bury themselves in mud, and in the northern part of their range they hibernate during the winter, buried in the mud. Diamondbacks mate in the spring and lay 5 to 18 eggs in cavities which they dig in the marshes or dunes.

Some of the natural threats to the terrapin are raccoons, foxes, herons and other birds which prey on eggs and hatchlings. Human threats are automobiles (that run over turtles crossing the road to lay eggs); boat propellers, and loss of habitat by dredging or filling in wetlands. The beautiful Diamondback terrapin can thank Prohibition and the Great Depression for its continued existence. The female Diamondback terrapin was the main ingredient in "Terrapin Stew," all the rage in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After Prohibition went into effect in 1920, alcohol, a key ingredient in terrapin stew, was no longer readily available. At the same time, decades of unregulated over-harvesting of Diamondbacks had made them dangerously scarce, driving up prices and making them affordable only to the very wealthy. Much of that wealth disappeared with the Great Depression in 1929, and the era of the Diamondback terrapin as a culinary delicacy among the Eastern elite came to an end.

A major threat to terrapins today comes from their incidental capture in crab traps. Terrapins enter crab traps to feast on the bait or live blue crabs within, and then drown when they can't get back out. Little is known about terrapin populations in Tampa Bay, because the animals are shy, reclusive and difficult to study. The largest remaining terrapin populations are thought to be in the bay adjacent to the mouth of the Alafia River, and Cockroach Bay area. Research on the status of terrapins in Tampa Bay is needed to identify management actions that would help preserve this exquisitely patterned little turtle.

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