Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin

This gem of a reptile gets a protective boost from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center

By Candice Dyer

The diamondback terrapin derives its name from the angular, faceted designs on its shell—but don’t expect to see much family resemblance among them.

“Each terrapin has a shell that is as different and singular as a fingerprint or a snowflake,” says Michelle Kaylor, the rehabilitation coordinator for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (GSTC). “They are actually quite beautiful.”

Seven subspecies of the turtle use their webbed feet to bob along the shore, feasting on fiddler crabs and basking on marsh banks from Cape Cod to Texas. Jekyll is home to Malaclemys terrapin, the continent’s only turtle species to live in brackish water. With assistance from the University of Georgia, the GSTC has ramped up its research in the past ten years. Visitors to the island may have noticed flashing “turtle crossing” signs on the Jekyll Island causeway. Researchers have identified “hot spots” where a female terrapin is most likely to cross the causeway to lay her eggs. They have also installed nest boxes with predator-proof caging in some of these areas. Since 2009, their efforts have saved almost 2,500 turtles.

Diamondback Terrapin Shells

Despite these measures, some terrapins do not survive long enough to reproduce. The GSTC collects dead and injured animals to incubate their eggs. If a terrapin can be rehabilitated, it will be released into the marsh.

Females enjoy a distinct advantage. In what scientists call “sexual dimorphism,” they are twice as large as males. The male terrapins’ smaller size leaves them susceptible to drowning in crab traps. “Historically they were heavily harvested for food, to make turtle soup for the Vanderbilts. That’s illegal now,” Kaylor says.

The diamondback terrapin is not classified as endangered, but scientists have designated it “unique,” meaning that without proper management, the population easily could become threatened. The turtles are doing their part to survive. “They’re not slow,” Kaylor says. “I have seen females really book it across the road.” Just in case, drive carefully on the causeway.

This article first appeared in Volume 2 Number 2 of 31•81, the Magazine of Jekyll Island.

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