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Diamondback Terrapins

By Mary Pringle for The Island Eye News    

Diamond Terrapin
(Photo by Thomas Andrews)

Sea turtles are not the only turtles who are nesting on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island this summer. The Island Turtle Team has recently been called to save the nests of marsh terrapins AKA diamondback terrapins on Sullivan’s Island. On June 5 Marshall Stith, a former mayor of Sullivan’s Island, saw a female terrapin laying eggs in the rocks on his driveway on Station 22 Street. We carefully removed them and put them in a safer place closer to the marsh on the Intracoastal Waterway. Then on June 14 Thomas Andrews saw a terrapin laying eggs on the right of way next to the road on Cove Avenue. 

She had dug her egg chamber right up against the tire of his truck. This was a disaster waiting to happen. Andrews was glad when we arrived and had even put an orange caution sign over the nest with a message on it that there was a turtle nest there. We found seven small oval eggs each about 1 ¼ inches long very close to the surface. It is unlikely that they would have survived to hatch with cars and trucks driving over them. 

Andrews had an ideal spot in his yard not far from the waterway for the nest to be relocated. So they were carefully placed there. These turtles normally crawl up out of the marsh and go even several house lots inland trying to find a good elevated spot that will not get flooded to leave their eggs. Watch out for them crossing the road this time of year. 

Just like sea turtle eggs they are porous and need oxygen to hatch. This means the developing embryos cannot survive being underwater for more than minutes even though all of these turtles live in the water as adults. Turtle Team members often find terrapins that have died and washed up on the beach, especially near inlets where they have washed around from their marsh habitat. Scientists study them in the Charleston area. It is also said that they were one of the best turtles used to make turtle soup. Although they are not as endangered as some sea turtles, they, like many species, are important in the ecology of the Lowcountry. Problems for them include habitat destruction from development and being caught and drowned in crab traps. There are devices that should be put on crab traps to exclude them from getting trapped inside and drowning when they cannot get out to breathe. We always want to know when a sea turtle strands or washes ashore so we can document it for SCDNR. However, we do not document it when terrapins do so. They can be buried without a report. We ask people to look at their legs or flippers to see if it is indeed a sea turtle. All sea turtles have long front flippers for swimming long distances with only one or two claws. But terrapins have short legs with multiple claws instead. If you are in doubt, take a picture and text it and the location to 843-697-8733 or call the police non-emergency number 843-886-6522. Diamondback terrapins get their name from the beautiful pattern on their upper shells. They live in brackish water for 25-40 years and have salt glands in their heads to rid their bodies of excess salt from the water they drink. They are only 6 feet, 8 inches long and females usually lay about seven to 10 small white oval eggs which take about 60-85 days to hatch. Some can come out of the ground as early as March after overwintering in the nest until the weather warms up. 

It is good that our residents care about them and want to help them nest.

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