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Diamondback terrapin needs help - May 21, 2012

The future of the northern diamondback terrapin, our state reptile, is uncertain but hopeful. This turtle inhabits the narrow strip of estuaries that border our nation's coast from Massachusetts to Texas. While this habitat covers a long distance, the inland range is quite narrow.

Even in pristine conditions, terrapin have difficulty making it to adulthood and successfully reproducing. In some locations more than 90 percent of nests are predated by skunks, foxes, gulls and a variety of other predators. Females are sometime intercepted by raccoons and larger mammals when they leave the water to lay their clutch.

After a terrapin stew craze caused intense harvesting in the mid 1800s, the aquatic turtles were faced with extinction. Today we see terrapin locally in Applebee's parking lots, walking the Boardwalk at Springfest and those who have waterfront property commonly find nests in their yards.

It seems the terrapin population has recovered well. Yet, it could be that terrapin are more visible because they are being pushed toward subpar habitat, where they will face certain conflict with motor vehicles, pets, lawn mowers and a host of other threats. Could this eventually cause another population collapse?

The threats to terrapin in Maryland's coastal bays are many, but so are the ways that we can protect them.

» Bulkheads and riprap prevent terrapin from reaching suitable nesting sites and in some places have eliminated traditional nesting beaches. There are effective methods of erosion prevention which incorporate structures that provide habitat for terrapin and other wildlife. Softened shorelines, as they are called, provide valuable habitat and help to reduce nutrient pollution in our coastal bays.

» Many turtles mistake garbage for food causing injury or death. An abundance of litter is one reason 40 percent of turtle species worldwide are faced with extinction. Help keep our watershed free of litter. You can join a cleanup event and keep both residential and commercial trash cans closed tightly. Populations of raccoons, gulls, skunks and other opportunistic feeders are inflated because of easy access to food discarded by humans. An increase in the populations of these animals means more predators for eggs and hatchlings.

» Female terrapin are often struck by vehicles while crossing roads in search of a sandy nesting spot. They are searching for the same nesting area from which they hatched. If it is safe to pull over and help a terrapin cross the road, please do. Powerful instincts guide the travels of a turtle, so move it to the side of the road which it faces. The same goes for hatchlings, which are trying to make their way back to bay water.

» Lured into crabpots by the bait left for crabs, terrapin frequently drown because they are unable to surface for air. Residential crab pots are required by law to be fitted with TEDs, or terrapin excluder devices. Learn more about this quick and easy method of saving terrapin by visiting www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/pdfs/2010TerrapinBrochure.pdf

Scientists are unsure of current terrapin populations and their ability to adapt to the changes of the 21st century. Real estate development on terrapin habitat continues, the sea level is rising and populations of terrapin predator and prey species are changing. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program invites you to become a citizen scientist and support terrapin by recording where you see them.

Anyone who sees a terrapin, whether dead or alive, on the land or in the water, adult, hatchling or egg can contribute data to a source of information designed to help direct future terrapin conservation efforts. To join, log onto www.mdcoastalbays.org to fill out our Report-a-Terrapin form. Then view our terrapin map and see where others have spotted terrapin.

Reports with pictures and GPS coordinates are the most valuable. Reports of terrapin nesting in marginal locations such as backyards, golf courses and edges of parking lots will be especially helpful as they provide insight into how well terrapin are able to adapt to the loss of traditional nesting sites.

Finally, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, in conjunction with MDNR and other partners, also invites you to help us count terrapin on June 9-10. We need people with boats, cameras, GPS units, binoculars or just a willingness to be part of one of the survey crews. For more information about the terrapin survey, TEDs or terrapin in general, email Bill at bmahoney@mdcoastalbays.org.

Bill Mahoney is a project coordinator at the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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