Diamondback Terrapin Journal

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Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

Diamondback terrapins are one of the world's most beautiful and colorful turtles. Diamondbacks inhabit estuaries and saltwater marshes from Cape Cod through the southern coast of the U.S.; they are our only native turtle that lives in water where the salinity comes close to or equals that of ocean water. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of this turtle is its shell also commonly called carapace. The carapace varies in coloration from gray or black to light brown and is strongly grooved with a composite of concentric circles that accounts for its common name. The mouth is bordered by a hard, distinctive beak which the terrapin uses to crush the small crustaceans and molluscs that makes up its principal food. Another descriptive feature of the diamondback is their sexual dimorphism; females tend to be twice the size of males at sexual maturity. Male diamondbacks usually attain a carapace length of 5 inches whereas females can attain a length exceeding 9 inches. Females also tend to have larger, broader heads than the males adding to their bulkier look. There are many subspecies of the diamondback terrapin. There is great diversity between subspecies but their is also much variation within a subspecies. As previously mentioned carapace color varies but so does patterning on the carapace. Skin color and patterns are equally diverse on the skin; colors range from gray, white, olive, slate blue to even black while patterns range from small dots, big spots, lines, bold stripes and even patternless.

Culinary experts considered the diamondback terrapin to be the best tasting turtle in the world. This dubious distinction led to an enormous reduction in their numbers by the late 19th century. Fortunately terrapin meat is no longer in high demand. Now the main threats to terrapin populations are development as well as commercial crabbing. Habitat destruction, mass drowning in crab nets and pollution now threaten diamondback populations throughout their range. Coastal property is prime real estate and continued human encroachment not only depletes their habitat but forces surviving terrapins to find alternative nesting sites; they often must venture further inland where they are open to greater danger such as becoming road kill.

Turtles figure prominently in Native American culture. Of particular significance is the fact that the turtle carapace is composed of 13 plates (technically called scutes) as well as 28 ridge scutes. Is it a coincidence that these numbers correspond precisely to the Native American method of marking time? Thirteen new moons appear each year and there are 28 days between each new moon.

artwork and text by Steve Sierigk © 2001

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