Along the east coast of North America, stretching as far north as Cape Cod and wrapping along the southern coast to Texas, there can be found a singularly unique species of American turtle. What makes this turtle unique is not the pale flesh with dark spots, squiggles and other shaped markings; nor, is it the intricately patterned shell with signature diamoned shaped scutes. It is that among the many species of turtle crawling and swimming within U.S. borders, the Diamondback Terrapin is the only one that lives entirely in brackish waters.

What does that mean, you ask? Brackish waters are those slightly salty environments such as estuaries, tidal creeks and salt water marshes. Places where the saline content comes close to or even equals that of the ocean. Because they live in places such as these, the Diamondback comes equipped with hindlegs that are almost cartoonish in their size. These much larger back legs, combined with webbed toes, make it easier for the terrapin to battle the tidal currents as they hunt for food (aquatic snails, crabs, fish, marine worms and plants) and attempt to avoid boat propellers.

Now let's backtrack to their physical description again. This is a tough area since there is a lot of variation within the subspecies due to some intermingling, but I'll get to that history lesson in a second. The basic characteristics of a Diamondback Terrapin include their larger hindlegs, deeply grooved concentrically patterned and diamond shaped scutes (the growth plates on the top shell) and dark patterns on their skin. Obviously the unique diamond shaped scutes are what led to the name of this member of the Emydidae family. The coloring of these characteristics can vary within subspecies ranging from medium gray or brown to nearly black carapaces (top shells); pale to dark gray or black skin tones with dark spots, stripes, blotches or flecks on it; to yellow, green or black plastrons. Within the same subspecies you can have one turtle with orange donut shapes on its scutes and another with olive, which is why it holds the honor of being the most physically variable turtle species.

There are seven common subspecies of Diamondback Terrapin. Among them are:
  • the Northern Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin terrapin
    found from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras

  • the Carolinan Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin centrata
    found from Cape Hatteras to Flagler County, Florida

  • the Florida East Coast Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin tequesta
    found from Flagler County to the Upper Keys

  • the Mangrove Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin rhizophorarum
    found in the Mangrove swamps of the Florida Keys and the southern-most tip of the mainland

  • the Ornate Diamonback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin macrospilota
    found from the Florida Panhandle to Key Largo

  • the Mississippi Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin pileata
    found from the Florida Panhandle to eastern Louisiana

  • and the Tesas Diamonback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin littoralis
    found in eastern Louisiana and all the way to Corpus Christi, Texas
That said, there are more than likely other subspecies out there but it is so hard to tell the true differences between them that often Diamondbacks from differing subspecies are lumped in with the wrong groups. This can be largely blamed on the popularity of terrapins as an ingredient in turtle soup. See, this is where the history lesson begins.

It would seem that back in the 1800s terrapin soup became all the rage. Terrapins had long been eaten by Native Americans, cooked whole over coals, and it has been suggested that the word terrapin was actually derived from the Algonquin word 'torope'. Thanks to the popularity of terrapin soup thousands of pounds of terrapins were collected and served cooked in wine. To a lesser extent they are still collected today for soup; with 11,000 lbs being the general limit allowed to be gathered in comparison to the 89,000 lbs collected in 1891. Along came Prohibition and all that terrapin eating became a thing of the past. Remember the wine they were cooked in? It's hard to substitute something else for wine as a key ingredient, unless perhaps you are Sneff, which I'm sure many terrapins were thankful for. As a result large shipments of the various subspecies of terrapins were released in the wild and the interbreeding commenced. And now you know why it is so hard to tell Diamonback Terrapins apart. End history lesson.

Something it is definitely not hard to tell the difference between with Diamondbacks, however, is gender. The sexual dimorphism among the species is something they share with their relative the Map Turtle. Females are much larger than males, sometimes being as much as twice as big at sexual maturity. The average size of the male carapace is 5" where as the female is 9". A female's carapace also tends to have a deeper mound-shaped appearance and finally their heads are broader and larger in general.

Speaking of sexual maturity we should talk about that some. Diamondbacks hibernate underwater in the winter, burrowing in the mud. In the spring, generally around May, they emerge to locate nesting grounds and mate. Then the female seeks out coastal dunes or narrow sandy beaches to lay her pinkish eggs on. Eggs are often pilfered by raccoons, muskrats or even crows and are occasionally disrupted when people plant dune grasses. This happens because they are only buried six inches below the surface. That's not a lot in the scheme of things. If they manage to make it through their two to four month incubation period without disruption, little hatchlings about an inch long will emerge from the sand and make their way back to the water. There is a 20% mortality rate on eggs and hatchlings for Diamonbacks. And of those in the wild that live past the hatchling stage, 97% will die within the first three years.

Threatening the Diamonback Terrapin are several natural predators previously mentioned. There are also the human intrusions such as harvesting them for soup, polluting their environments, hitting them with cars as they cross the road to lay eggs, being accidentally caught and drowning in eel and crab pots and damage done to them by boat propellers. Efforts are being made to conserve their numbers however.

At the University of Maryland the Diamondback Terrapin has been the mascot since 1993, but before it was officially named the mascot it had been affiliated with the school as far back as 1933. When you have a major school with a large sports following sporting 'Fear the Turtle' gear you can't just ignore the plight of your mascot. So in June of 2002 portions of all sales of 'Fear the Turtle' merchandise were donated to research and conservation efforts organized by the Department of Natural Resources. Considering the number of students moving through the school, including yours truly, and the large following of the sports team, quite a bit of merchandise is purchased. Although it doesn't sound like much, funding the efforts of others plays a large role in conservation.


* thanks to doyle who pointed out the snapping turtles that live in brackish waters near him in New Jersey. I misunderstood my research and thought Diamondbacks were the only turtles in brackish waters when they are the only species to be found only in brackish waters.

References
Terrapin Genus, http://www.geocities.com/dterrapin/genus/
University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies, http://www.ocean.udel.edu/kiosk/terrapin.html
University of Maryalnd, http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/mdmanual/01glance/symbols/html/reptile.html
National Aquarium, http://www.aqua.org/animals_diamondbackterrapin.html
Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, http://www.cicu.org/environment_04.php
When I was just about four years old, my mother was parading my infant brother and I down Broadway on a daily walk when we happened to pass a local fish market. There in the window, where usually rested swaths of white and pink fishfleisch atop a couple of hundred pounds of ice, there was nothing but the bare metal of the basin. This oddity apparently caused me to stop and pull my mother (and, perforce, my baby brother) over to the window; every day, we passed this store, and every day there was fish! Where was the fish?

That day there was a moving, particolored mass. It was lumpy and wiggling. It turns out that one of those shipments of Diamondback Terrapins had made it as far as 107th St. and Broadway in Manhattan, and the li'l critters were busily exploring the strait confines of their metal prison. Although they appeared at the time to be cleverly building a quick trick turtle stack in order to escape, my mother assured me (she assures me) that in fact they were in a pile due to sheer happenstance.

It took several minutes of explanation for me to understand the ramifications of Turtle Soup on the wiggling mass before me, but the results were no doubt predictable: I refused to go anywhere. And screamed. Until my mother did what any desperate mother would, and purchased a turtle for us to take home as a pet. When asked which I'd like, I pointed to the one that had made it farthest across the counter in the ongoing Yertle-like escape attempt and said, apparently, "Wiggles."

They took the creature (four inches long, perhaps; I found out later she was illegally immature to be soup) and placed her in a brown paper bag. Mom handed me the bag and off we went home, with me trying at every chance to open the bag and peek in, and with Wiggles (for that was her name) using those powerful back legs to rip long gashes in the bag. Fortunately she wasn't really interested in escaping, just moving about, and I managed to not drop her onto the hot summer pavement; we reached our apartment and she was ensconced in the sink with a small dish of catfood and an inch of cool water while Mom did what any overworked, frantic intellectual parent would do in those days pre-Web and started tearing through our library.

She discovered that a Diamondback Terrapin, due to its brackish environment, is not like the simple-to-maintain box turtle, no sir. And thus began a two-year odyssey of ever-larger glass aquaria and terraria; all manner of experimental turtle feedings, hours spent watching the turtle, cajoling the turtle, searching for the turtle (we discovered early on that strong back legs means a strong climber, you betcha), playing with the turtle, learning to wash one's hands after playing with the turtle, and so forth.

Eventually, a couple of years later, Wiggles had a nice hundred-gallon tank. With a German salt-water pump (Eheim?) and filter system, several salt-water plants, and a few goldfish to keep her company. My father had finally stopped making twice-daily jokes about turtle steak and turtle stew and smacking his lips at the tank and had installed a tractor seat mounted on a raw stump of wood just in front of it, in the main foyer of the house. He worked at home, just in the next room. Guests would inevitably ask why there was such an odd-looking seat in the middle of the foyer, and he would smile secretly at them and then share a knowing look with Wiggles, suspended in mid-tank and serenely paddling with her nose against the glass.

We knew the secret. We learnt it as soon as we realized that the reason Wiggles kept trying to get out of the tanks was not because she was drowning (well, I mean, really) or because she was panicking (again, clearly). No, it was because they were fish tanks - and they weren't deep enough. Turtles like to dive. They like to swim up and down; they like to sleep floating near the bottom but not resting on it. They need vertical room. When we finally twigged to the problem and got her a four-foot-tall tank that was fairly shallow front-to-back but let her dive up and down to her heart's content, she promptly dove in and didn't come to the surface for perhaps half an hour. She explored every inch of the bottom of the tank, dug a few trenches, moved the shells to where she wanted them, chased the fish for a few minutes, and then took a nap. Oh, and then she woke up and remembered to come up and breathe for just a fraction of a second before heading back down to home.

We got her a boyfriend, eventually; as the second Diamondback Terrapin of the house, his name was Beta. He was, as described in the excellent writeup above, about half her size, and the poor thing was sex-mad. He would follow her around the tank, vainly trying to mount the rear half of her shell and wrap his tail around hers to touch cloacas - all the while, she'd be ignoring him and swimming about, more often than not kicking him in the head with those enormous back feet. Still, he was a determined little git, we had to give him that. Plus, where Wiggles was an olive color in her shell with grey skin and dark black spots, Beta was...black. All over. His carapace was black, his plastron was black, and his skin was black - his only pale spot was the chitin around his jaw, and just above that he had a black stripe that looked just like a mustache, the funny little man.

They had the run of the house. After being in the tank a few days, they would start swimming at the surface, patiently trying to climb the glass walls until someone noticed and put them on the floor, at which point they'd scamper off out of sight under the furniture. They'd wander around the house for a week or two, eating cat food out of the cats' dishes (much to the disgust of the cats, to be sure) and when they were feeling dehydrated they would emerge from beneath the tables and couches and waddle back to the foyer, parking themselves in the middle of the floor to wait, looking up at their tank. Eventually, someone would happen by, pick them up and drop them back in the water. This system worked quite well. The cats were never sure what to make of them; the first time the turtles withdrew into their shells in front of the cats, the cats reacted exactly like the Yeoman of the Bowmen in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and, screaming "SCREEBIES!" ran off into the night. The turtle would stare after them for a bit (they were slow, placid thinkers), shrug and plod onwards.

They were, in many ways, ideal pets for active young boys, being (as they are) armored. I cannot count the number of times a running foot came around a corner and caught a turtle, only to have the turtle zip across the wood flooring at a good clip and thwack off a wall...then to have the turtle emerge tentatively and look around somewhat reproachfully before ambling off. During the night, one would occasionally awaken to a rhythmic scrape...thunk!...scrape...thunk!...scrape...thunk! This, upon investigation, would turn out to be a turtle on its way down the hall, trying to climb 'out of' the hallway by going up the wall. It would raise itself up at an angle, then slide back down (scrape) to hit the floor (thunk!) and move forward a few inches, and then keep doing this all the way down the hall just in case the wall was short enough to climb over at any point. Although my karma likely suffers, I cannot count the number of times I proudly showed my friends that the phrase 'helpless as a flipped turtle' was, in fact, in error. Flip a Diamondback Terrapin over and they'll flail for perhaps ten seconds, trying to find purchase with their feet to lever themselves back. If that doesn't work, however, they're not helpless- they'll crane their neck out to one side, stick their nose against the ground, and in one powerful lunge with their neck muscles the turtle will be upright and waddling serenely off.

You had to be careful in winter; if it got too cold in the apartment, the turtles would try to start hibernating, which (given the lack of handy, wet sand at the bottom of a pond) would have been fatal. Also, since they were cold-blooded and liked warm corners, they had this self-destructive fondness for kipping under the steam radiators; we always had to make sure (when the radiators went on) that there were no turtles under them.

There were moments of awesome zen humor. My father was never happier than when colleagues of my mother whom he didn't care for were over for drinks, and suddenly (for example) the wife would get an extremely peculiar expression and then scream, jumping back from the table, followed by a slowly plodding turtle who had been trying to climb over her foot. Dad would usually exclaim something like "Why, there you are, dear!" before picking up the turtle and giving its (usually grimy) snout a kiss and introducing it to the panicked victim. How they reacted at that point would usually determine whether they were invited back.

The seat in the foyer was, of course, for observation. There was something completely zazen about watching them swim. The motion was so graceful, so beautiful, and so effortless, that just the smooth movement could stretch time out like taffy. The white noise of the filter pump, coupled with the perfectly cool temperature of the glass against one's forehead (one hundred gallons of saltwater maintained at precisely seventy-eight degrees was an awesome heatsink) and the fact that the turtles were quite happy to sit just on the other side of the glass, staring you in the face and swimming for hours, made meditation something my brother and I learned to do from our pets.

We had them for thirty years. Beta eventually escaped from our house in Vermont one summer, and given that there wasn't any salt water nearby and it was late in the season, we're fairly sure he didn't make it far. Wiggles lasted another ten years or so, finally succumbing to an apparent heart failure one day when dropped in her tank after an extended 'dry' period - at that point, however, she was approximately thirty-two to thirty-five years old; not bad for a pet.

Wiggles, Beta, recesquiat i pacem wherever your small turtle souls are. I'll bring herring when I come see you.

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