Diamondback Terrapins

Yesterday, I was walking along around the West Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge when I came across this diamondback terrapin just beginning to excavate her nest. I was alone, and she might have continued on her single-minded mission, but some other folks walked up and she took to the thickets. (They move faster than you might think.)

Diamondbacks were in the news recently because some 150 of them were crossing one of the runways at JFK, necessitating a few flight delays (the passengers probably didn’t know how privileged they were). They come ashore this time of year to lay their eggs. Jamaica Bay is prime habitat for this species, which is the only local turtle that lives in brackish water. It is not their fault that airports, nature centers, and roads have been built through the area they’ve been nesting in since the glaciers created Long Island. Mea culpa, Malaclemys terrapin terrapin!

This particular turtle is rather dark, and the species’ distinctive diamondback patterning (see below) is hard to see on her, but I soon ran into Russell L. Burke of Hofstra, who is in charge of a long-term terrapin study at JBWR. He identified her as one of his babies (so to speak: the red splotch is paint, put on to i.d. the turtle). The bumpy ridge on the carapace is another good field mark.

A couple of hours later, I ran in Burke again. He had this turtle in hand (the attached slipper shell along with the paint made her quite distinctive). She had just completed her nesting, which involves digging a hole, laying her eggs, and then thoroughly covering up the nest. I’m sorry I missed seeing it, but it was probably better there weren’t any paparazzi around to bother her.

Unfortunately, the covering up of the nest is not all that effective in stopping a very efficient predator: there are raccoons in JBWR: the refuge was once a series of little islands, and thus largely raccoon-free, but is now connected to the mainland of Queens, a suburban-like, raccoon-friendly kind of borough, by road and train bridges. And these raccoons destroy over 90% of terrapin nests. I knew turtle nesting mortality, in general, was very high, but this is pretty grim. Burke told me they’ve already found 800 predated nests this season and expect about 1,200 total. The link above details some of the strategies being tried to get this number down.

Some of the known nests are caged to prevent the raccoons from getting to them.Here’s a nest that was plundered:And a closer view of the destroyed eggs:Turtle eggs are soft and fairly round; these remains rather look like smashed ping-pong balls.

During my walk, I saw one turtle returning to the Bay, another coming out of the Bay, and a third in the pond itself. Then I saw this one on the path. This patterning is the classic “diamondback.” The facial patterning is also rather beautiful:Terrapins used to be enormously popular human food. Appropriately, yesterday was the Fourth of July, and early America was thick with turtle soups. (I’ve been enjoying Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series lately, and Burr, Lincoln, 1876, and Empire, which cover the 19th century, all have scenes of the wealthy slurping down terrapin.) Populations took a serious hit from all that scarfing. Today, terrapins aren’t eaten by very many people, as far as I can tell, but there is a hunting season for them (in August, after breeding) in New York.

Timing is everything in natural history. This is the first time I’ve seen terrapins in many years of going to JBWR. I did once find an old bleached-out shell, and I’ve seen far too many plundered nests, but yesterday was the first time I’ve got near to some live ones.

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