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Turtle species thrive in Maryland - October 9, 2012

In Maryland, we love turtles. It’s easy to see why, since these slow-moving reptiles live 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 of Ocean City and Assateague.

Not only are they in the wild, but many Maryland institutions have the turtle as their mascot; whether it’s the University of Maryland with their Diamondback Terrapin mascot or The Greene Turtle restaurant’s famous turtle logo, it’s almost impossible to take a step in the Old Line State without seeing a turtle somewhere.

But why do these methodically plodding animals do so well in our mid-Atlantic region?

The mid-Atlantic region is a temperate area with fair amounts of precipitation, varying elevations and a wide array of different habitats. Turtles can thrive here because there are less major stressors such as extreme heat and cold, little to no water, or frequent weather events like hurricanes or tropical storms. By having a stable non-static ecosystem and a lack of large natural predators, the various species of turtles in Maryland have had the chance to find niches in all habitats across the state, which has allowed them to adapt to their local environment in unique ways.

Because of the vast array of turtle species in Maryland, we’ll look at each region’s turtle population separately based on their local ecosystem.

In the western counties of Maryland where mountains, hills, rivers and streams dominate the landscape, we have species such as the Midland and Eastern Painted Turtles, the Eastern Box Turtle and the Wood Turtle, among others. These turtles are hardy, relatively small and generally have less webbing between their toes than their more aquatic cousins.

They also have to be able to completely or partially bring themselves into their shells to protect themselves from dangerous terrestrial predators. Generally, these 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. Species that inhabit this area include the Northern Map turtle, the Diamondback Terrapin, two species of Painted turtles, the Eastern Musk turtle and many others.

This region of the state consists of large, rolling forested hills that give way to grassy fields and marshes as you progress closer to the water’s edge. Because of this, the diversity of adaptations these turtles possess reflects 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.

Along the banks and sides of these waterways are wetlands that provide perfect habitat for a variety of aquatic turtles, including the Diamondback Terrapin, the Eastern Mud Turtle and the Northern Red-Bellied Cooter. These turtles are well-adapted to live in fluctuating water conditions; salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen levels can all change dramatically over the course of a year. These 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.

These turtles and their wetland habitat homes are in serious danger from anthropogenic sources: water pollution, wetland destruction for development, rising sea levels caused by global climate change, and other actions by humans all contribute to have a negative impact on the turtles and wetlands found on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Further east we find ourselves in the Atlantic, home to many species of sea turtles. Unlike their terrestrial cousins, the species found off the Atlantic coast of Maryland only live in the ocean and will occasionally stray into the bays for food, mating grounds 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.

From the tops of our mountains to the bottom of our bays, turtles have found a home here in Maryland and it’s our job to make sure that we keep them happy and healthy. This means using turtle excluders on crab traps, which keep terrapins and other aquatic turtle species from being caught and killed in the traps.

We can also recycle and throw away litter which can run into our waterways, and lead to turtles dying due to suffocation by ingestion of the items. But it’s not all bad news; some organizations such as the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, Maryland DNR and the National Aquarium in Baltimore are helping by monitoring, protecting and encouraging turtle education to people of all ages. By working together, we can keep Maryland’s turtles around for generations to come.


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