Maryland State Reptile - Diamondback Terrapin

[photos, Diamondback Terrapin]

Diamondback Terrapin. Photos by Willem M. Roosenburg, Ph.D., Ohio University.

[photo, Diamondback Terrapins, female atop male] The Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) was made the State reptile and official mascot of the University of Maryland College Park in 1994 (Chapter 476, Acts of 1994; Code General Provisions Article, sec. 7-309). As mascot (also known as Testudo), the Terrapin, however, has been affiliated with the University's athletic program since 1933.

Maryland has acted to protect Diamondback Terrapins. Effective July 1, 2007, it is unlawful to take or possess them for commercial purposes (Chapters 117 & 118, Acts of 2007; Code Natural Resources Article, sec. 4-902).

[photo, Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), Tawes Building, Dept. of Natural Resources, Annapolis, Maryland] Chesapeake diamondbacks are distinguished by diamond-shaped, concentric rings on the scutes of their upper shells. They are predators whose preference for unpolluted saltwater make them indicators of healthy marsh and river systems. In winter, they hibernate underwater in mud. Around late May, diamondback terrapin emerge to mate, nest, and bask in the sun on coastal dunes or narrow sandy beaches.

Northern Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin), Tawes Building, Dept. of Natural Resources, Annapolis, Maryland, April 2009. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

Terrapin are sexually dimorphic, with females much larger than males. Males range between 4 and 5 inches, while females average nearly 7 inches. The largest terrapin on record was a female measuring 9 inches. This disparity continues in the time needed to reach maturity as well. Males reach maturity at 3 years old, while females are not full grown until age 7. A long lived species, the diamondback terrapin can reach ages in excess of 20 years. Carnivores, their diet includes mollusks, insects, crustaceans, and small fish.

Chesapeake colonists ate terrapin prepared Native-American fashion, roasted whole in live coals. Abundant and easy to catch, terrapin were so ample that landowners often fed their slaves and indentured servants a staple diet of terrapin meat. Later, in the 19th century, the turtle was appreciated as gourmet food, especially in a stew laced with cream and sherry. Subsequently, tremendous retail demand and heavy fishing of the terrapin nearly depleted its supply, and protective laws were enacted.

In 1891, some 89,000 lbs. of terrapin were harvested from Maryland waters. With few exceptions, annual harvests since 1956 have remained below 11,000 lbs.

The Department of Natural Resources. is responsible for the rules and regulations governing the conservation of diamondback terrapin (Code Natural Resources Article, sec. 4-903). Crabbers are required to use a By-Catch Reduction Device (BRD), also known as a Turtle Excluder Device (TED), on all crab pots, in order to prevent terrapins from entering the pots, getting trapped, and drowning.

[drawing, Diamondback Terrapin mascot, University of Maryland]
  • Fear the Turtle
  • In June 2002, the University began to donate a portion of proceeds from the sale of "Fear the Turtle" merchandise to fund terrapin research and conservation efforts at the Department of Natural Resources.

    Detailed information about the turtle's biology and living habits can be found at the website of the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

    Diamondback Terrapin mascot, University of Maryland, College Park.

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