The Diamondback Terrapin

Summer 2017
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Unknown to most of us, there is an engaging little turtle that dwells in the Kiawah marsh.  It is the Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin).  As Kiawah turtles go, it is quite small; the upper shell or carapace of the female is only about seven inches long, and the male is just half that size.  

Among the prettiest of turtles, Diamondbacks are highly variable in shades of gray.  The skin around the head and neck is usually a light velvety gray with speckles of black or dark brown.  And their name comes from the strong diamond‑shaped markings in concentric patterns on the carapace.   

Dr Whit Gibbons, a senior research ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab has been studying the terrapin population in the marshes of Kiawah since 1982.  Whit and his assistants wade through the tidal creeks to net the terrapins for measurements of size and weight. Then each individual is assigned an identification number that is coded into notches in its shell.   

The terrapin has twenty-four plates called scutes around the edge of the carapace, and different combinations of scutes can be notched with a file without harming the animal.  Thus each individual carries on its back a unique code that is recognizable upon recapture as many as twenty-five years later. 

From all these studies, a large amount of valuable data has been collected on the behavior, ecology and life history of this threatened species.  In fact, essentially everything known about the terrapins that live in the marshes of the southeastern states has been obtained from these studies in the Kiawah marsh.

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Revised: May 15, 2015