Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin

Terrapin

Kingdom
Phylum
Subphylum
Class
Order
Suborder
Family
Subfamily
Genus
SPECIES
Malaclemys terrapin
Population size
Unknown
Life Span
25 yrs
WEIGHT
300-500 g
LENGTH
13-19 cm

The Diamondback terrapin is a species of turtle native to the eastern and southern United States and in Bermuda. The common name of these turtles refers to the diamond pattern on top of their shell (carapace), but the overall pattern and coloration vary greatly. The shell is usually wider at the back than in the front, and from above it appears wedge-shaped. The shell coloring can vary from brown to grey, and their body color can be grey, brown, yellow, or white. All have a unique pattern of wiggly, black markings or spots on their body and head. Diamondback terrapins have large webbed feet are very strong swimmers.

Distribution

Diamondback terrapins live in the very narrow strip of brackish coastal waters on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, from as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to the southern tip of Florida and around the Gulf Coast to Texas. A small breeding subpopulation is also found in the Bermuda Islands. In most of their range terrapins live in Spartina marshes that are flooded at high tide, but in Florida, they also live in mangrove swamps. Other habitats include estuaries, lagoons, and tidal creeks.

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Diamondback terrapins are social creatures and are often seen basking together during the day. At night they rest in their burrows in the mud at low tide. These turtles spend the majority of their life in water, however, they do leave the water to bask and lay eggs. Adult Diamondback terrapins hibernate in the colder months in most of their range, in the mud of creeks and marshes.

Lifestyle
Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Diamondback terrapins are carnivores. They typically feed on fish, marine snails (especially the saltmarsh periwinkle), clams, mussels, and other mollusks.

Mating Habits

REPRODUCTION SEASON
May-June
INCUBATION PERIOD
60-85 days
INDEPENDENT AGE
at birth
FEMALE NAME
female
MALE NAME
male
BABY NAME
hatchling
BABY CARRYING
5-10 eggs

Little is known about the mating system in Diamondback terrapins. Their breeding season occurs in May and June. Females may wander considerable distances on land before nesting. Nests are usually laid in sand dunes or scrub vegetation near the ocean in June and July, but nesting may start as early as late April in Florida. Females will quickly abandon a nest attempt if they are disturbed while nesting. Clutch sizes vary latitudinally, with average clutch sizes 5-10 eggs. After covering the nest, females quickly return to the ocean and do not return except to nest again. Like many turtles, terrapins have temperature-dependent sex determination, meaning that the gender of hatchlings is the result of incubation temperature. The eggs usually hatch in 60-85 days, depending on the temperature and the depth of the nest. Hatchlings usually emerge from the nest in August and September but may overwinter in the nest after hatching. They sometimes stay on land in the nesting areas in both fall and spring. Hatchling terrapins are freeze tolerant and may overwinter on land. Young females usually become reproductively mature at around 7 years of age; males reach reproductive maturity before females because of their smaller adult size.

Population

Population threats

In the 1900s, Diamondback terrapins were once considered a delicacy to eat and were hunted almost to extinction. The major threats to these turtles are all associated with humans. People tend to build their cities on ocean coasts near the mouths of large rivers and in doing so they have destroyed many of the huge marshes that terrapins inhabited. Traps used to catch crabs, both commercially and privately, have commonly caught and drowned many Diamondback terrapins, which can result in male-biased populations, local population declines, and even extinctions. When these traps are lost or abandoned (“ghost traps”), they can kill terrapins for many years. Nests, hatchlings, and sometimes adults are commonly eaten by raccoons, foxes, rats and many species of birds, especially crows and gulls. The density of these predators are often increased because of their association with humans. Terrapins are also killed by cars when nesting females cross roads and mortality can be high enough to seriously impact populations. These turtles are still harvested for food in some states. Terrapins also suffer from pollutants such as metals and organic compounds and are collected for the pet trade. Some people breed the species in captivity and some color variants are considered especially desirable.

Population number

According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Diamondback terrapin is unknown. However, there is an estimated populations of the species consisting of 100 individuals in the Bermuda Islands. Currently, Diamondback terrapins are classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today are decreasing.

Ecological niche

Due to feeding upon aquatic organisms, Diamondback terrapins control the numbers of these species’ populations throughout the area of their habitat.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • Diamondback terrapins are believed to be the only turtle in the world that live in brackish water.
  • Terrapins look much like their freshwater relatives but are well adapted to the nearshore marine environment. They have several adaptations that allow them to survive in varying salinities; they can live in full-strength saltwater for extended periods of time and their skin is largely impermeable to salt.
  • Terrapins have lachrymal salt glands, not present in their relatives, which are used primarily when the turtle is dehydrated. They can distinguish between drinking water of different salinities.
  • Terrapins also exhibit unusual and sophisticated behavior to obtain freshwater, including drinking the freshwater surface layer that can accumulate on top of saltwater during rainfall and raising their heads into the air with mouths open to catch falling raindrops.
  • Terrapins are strong swimmers. They have strongly webbed hind feet, but not flippers as do sea turtles.
  • Terrapins have strong jaws for crushing shells of prey, such as clams and snails. This is especially true of females, who have larger and more muscular jaws than males.

References

1. Diamondback Terrapin on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamondback_terrapin
2. Diamondback Terrapin on The IUCN Red List site - https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/12695/507698

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