Maryland Coastal Bays

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Turtle Species Thrive in Maryland - March 29, 2015

In Maryland, we love turtles. They are in every habitat across the state; from the tops of the Appalachian mountains, to the salt marshes in the bays, to off the Atlantic coast. Not only are they prevalent in the wild, but many MD institutions have the turtle as their mascot: like the University of MD with their Diamondback Terrapin mascot or The Greene Turtle restaurants famous turtle logo. It is almost impossible to take a step in the old line state without seeing a turtle somewhere. But why do these methodically plodding reptiles do so well in our Mid-Atlantic region? 

The Mid-Atlantic region is a temperate region with fair amounts of precipitation, varying elevations and a wide array of different habitats. Turtles can thrive here because there are few major stressors such as extreme heat and cold, severe weather events like hurricanes and tropical storms, or extended periods of drought. By having a relatively stable ecosystem the various species of turtles in MD have had the chance to find niches in many habitats across the state.

Because of the vast array of turtle habitat in Maryland, each region’s turtle population is suited to thrive in their local ecosystem. In the western counties of MD where mountains, hills, rivers and streams dominant the landscape, we have species such as the Midland and Eastern Painted Turtles, the Eastern Box Turtle and the Wood Turtle. These turtles are hardy, relatively small and generally have claws on their feet, so they can dig into dirt or mud. These turtles also have to be able to completely or partially bring themselves into their shells, which some aquatic turtle species can not do, to protect themselves from danger and predators. Generally these hardy inland turtles live near streams, rivers and creeks in forests but can also be found in meadows and open fields traveling between waterways. 

Continuing eastward across the state, we have a different collection of turtles once we reach the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Unlike the western portion of the state, the Chesapeake Bay region of the state is not dominated by large mountains but instead has large, rolling forested hills that give way to grassy fields and marshes as you progress closer to the water’s edge. 

Species that inhabit this area include the Northern Map turtle, the Diamondback Terrapin, both species of Painted turtles, the Eastern Musk turtle and others. Because the Chesapeake Bay and its immediate area has forested uplands to low lying marsh lands, the diversity of adaptations these turtles have reflect the wide array of habitat available to them. Some species, such as the Diamondback Terrapin, have webbed feet and are more adapted to swimming in the bay, rivers and streams that cover the region. Terrapins and other semi-aquatic species have a flatter upper shell when compared to Box turtles and other terrestrial species, which allows the semi-aquatic turtles to swim faster in the water due to lower water resistance. This does have its drawbacks, as they generally lack the ability to completely draw themselves into their shells like some terrestrial species. 

As we continue east across the Chesapeake Bay, we get to the Delmarva peninsula which is mostly flat with some forests, open fields and lots of wetlands including fresh and salt water marshes. The peninsula is covered with small streams, rivers and creeks that feed into either the Chesapeake Bay or one of several Coastal Bays.

Along the banks of these waterways are wetlands that provide perfect habitat for a variety of semi-aquatic turtles; including the Diamondback Terrapin, the Eastern Mud Turtle and the Northern Red-Bellied Cooter. These turtles have adapted to live in fluctuating water conditions; salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen levels can all change dramatically over the course of a year so they must be able to tolerate a wide range of these conditions to thrive on the peninsula. These semi-aquatic turtles can tolerate such large fluctuations by changing their feeding, mating, and general behavior to avoid these problems or minimize their exposure to hazardous areas. For example, during the winter, when the water temperature gets to cold, Diamondback Terrapins will hibernate in the marsh mud, as opposed to the summer when they can be found swimming throughout the Coastal bays. 

Unlike their more terrestrial cousins, the sea turtles found off the Atlantic Coast of MD mostly live in the ocean and occasionally will stray into the bays for food, finding a beach to lay their eggs, or someplace to rest. The most common species seen off our shores is the Loggerhead, but we do have sightings of Ridley, Green and Leatherback sea turtles as well. Sea turtles are adapted for the marine environment and cannot sustain themselves on land for a prolonged period of time; they only go on land for reproductive purposes. They can not withdraw into their shells like inland turtles but they do have flippers instead of webbed feet to allow for better swimming in the water. They are also generally much larger than their land-dwelling cousins and have a much larger home range due to the distribution of food in the ocean. 

From the tops of our mountains to the bottom of our bays, turtles have found a niche here in Maryland and have evolved to suit our many different habitats perfectly. 

 
 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 


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