Saving Diamond-backed Terrapins

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Once considered a culinary delicacy, Diamond-backed terrapins are now listed as “near-threatened” by the IUCN. And some habitats in their extensive range – such as brackish marshes near the Gulf of Mexico – are at risk from oil pollution.

Recently I connected with Dan Palmer, Supervisor of Aquarists at Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center in Florida, to learn more about the Diamond-backed terrapin species and the observed behaviors of their long-time aquarium resident, Petey.

Dan shared with me that “the story I got about our acquisition of Petey was that a little boy had brought his turtle to a turtle race, where he was informed that his possession of the animal was not lawful. Petey was deemed non-releasable because of her orientation to people. She was brought to Marineland to be cared for. Petey was given a male name because the child could not tell the sexes apart. I believe I have been caring for Petey 12-15 years.”

As exemplified by Petey’s leg, this species has large, webbed rear feet that lend to their skillful swimming, literally “propelling them through water,” according to expert Dan. “And while holding larger foods in their beaks, their sharp nails are used to tear food into bite-sized pieces.” Female Diamond-backed terrapins are larger than their male counterparts, but have much shorter nails.

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Diamond-backed terrapins breathe air and can endure a variety of habitat conditions and water temperatures. When feeding in shallow waters, they have been observed surfacing approximately every 20 minutes. Dan noted that northern Diamond-backed terrapin varieties “bury themselves in the mud for the winter and don’t take another break until spring. It is thought that under normal conditions they [terrapins] can go 1-3 hours [without surfacing]. This is important because thousands die beneath under attended crab traps every year.”

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When threatened, a Diamond-backed terrapin can pull mostly into its shell, but not entirely, leaving it vulnerable to predators like dogs, raccoons and foxes. It is not uncommon to find terrapins with missing appendages or crushed shells.

Dan explained that “as in most turtle species the bulk of natural predation takes place in the young… The major predator of adult turtles is man. The females are most susceptible to predation when they come out on land to lay eggs. As appropriate nesting sites near shoreline are lost – habitat destruction, degradation as in bulkheads, revetments, landscaping, roadways, etc. – the turtles have to travel farther in this vulnerable non-aquatic state to find nesting sites. Often causeways are areas during the nesting season to find these animals crushed who otherwise would have a 50 year life expectancy.”

Recreational activities – such as off-roading – are also a potential threat to nesting turtles. When visiting a Diamond-backed terrapin habitat, ensure you are not disrupting nesting turtles, as females will abandon a nest if she feels threatened. This terrapin species is also sensitive to air pollution. 

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is just another complicated layer to the list of terrapin threats. As this species live and nest in marshes where fresh and salt water mix, wild Diamond-backed terrapin populations are in danger in Cedar Point Marsh and other locations vulnerable to the oil spread.

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Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall, taken of Petey at Marineland‘s Dolphin Conservation Center.