Diamondback terrapin crossing a busy road enroute to a nesting site.

    During the late 1800s' into the late '20s of the previous century, diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) populations were greatly depleted in the wild due to harvesting for the gourmet food market.  Fortunately, several states acted in a timely fashion to protect them from complete annihilation, and diamondback numbers soon recovered in the wild.  Their recovery was so dramatic and successful,  that the states lifted their protective status and commercial trade in diamondbacks was once again allowed.  Fortunately, terrapin meat was no longer in demand and diamondbacks were allowed to thrive in their natural habitats until recently.  Now, diamondback populations are no longer threatened by just commercial harvesting but are faced with having to contend with urban progress as well as the effects of commercial crabbing.  Habitat destruction, road kills, mass drowning in crab traps, and pollution are now threatening the status of diamondback populations throughout their range.  A number of states have the species listed as either protected or of special concern.  Among them is Florida (home to 4 different diamondback subspecies), which has again adopted protective measures to shut down commercial exploitation of terrapins.

Habitat Destruction and Road kills

    Terrapins are found exclusively in brackish water habitats with the exception of the egg laying season, when gravid females venture out of the water and marshes to lay their eggs on dry land.  Unfortunately, many nest sites have been destroyed by coastal development in the recent years.  It is common knowledge that coastal property is prime real estate, and the continued encroachment of human development into diamondback habitat is not only depleting their habitat, but causing other lethal problems as well.  Female terrapins that are no longer able to find nesting sites on developed barrier beach islands are forced to seek out alternative sites to lay their eggs.  In the process, many gravid diamondback females are lost to traffic mortality annually, resulting in not only the deaths of the nesting females, but also the loss of viable diamondback eggs.  A species cannot continue to survive without adequately replenishing its population.

    Conservation efforts have been underway in the state of New Jersey since 1991, headed by Roger Conant Wood.  The Terrapin Project  rescues injured terrapins and collects the eggs from the bodies of recently killed terrapins.  The potentially viable eggs are incubated and the hatchlings over wintered before being released into the wild.  Sadly, road kill fatalities of adult females still remain considerably higher than their rate of replacement, even with the feverish efforts of Dr. Wood and others.

Crab Traps

    Another factor that is having devastating effect on diamondback populations is the drowning of terrapins in commercial and recreational crab traps.  Conservative numbers suggest that tens of thousands of diamondbacks drown in these traps annually.  Terrapins breath oxygen from the air, unlike the blue crabs that the majority of these traps were designed to catch.  While road kills have been instrumental in reducing the number of females within a certain population, crab traps have the same effect on juveniles and males of the species.  Female terrapins are twice the size of males and thus have a tendency not to be able to fit into the traps.  The problem of terrapins drowning in crab traps is of such severity that entire populations could be wiped out by early next century unless effective measures are taken to avoid this end.

    Currently, there seem to be two solutions to this issue: a modified trap design or an excluder device known as the Bycatch Reduction Apparatus (BRA).  The modified crab traps are 6 feet tall compared to the traditional 2 feet tall traps.  While traditional traps are fully submerged in the water, modified traps allow for two feet of the trap to extend out of the water, thus allowing caught terrapins access to air.

    The BRA device prohibits the entry of most terrapins while allowing the entry of the targeted crabs.  While both types of modified traps are costlier than traditional traps, research has proven in both cases that the modified traps have actually increased the number of crabs caught compared to that of traditional traps.  Terrapin enthusiasts should be encouraged to know that there is already legislation in the works to make these modified traps mandatory in certain states.

Commercial Harvesting

    While commercial harvesting is done at a considerably smaller level than earlier this century, it too is having a negative effect on wild terrapin populations.  Although its effects are not as serious as those caused by the other factors mentioned earlier, coupled with these other factors, commercial harvesting can no longer be categorized as "sustainable use."  Most collecting is now done for both the food industry and the pet trade.  Once again, it is the adult females that are most valued to the food trade and this raises severe concerns as to whether the species can adequately replenish itself with continued indiscriminate harvesting.  The Diamondback Terrapins eGroup was created by Vickie Hays in September of 2000 to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between terrapin breeders as well as provide a forum for those needing advice on the captive husbandry of the species.  It is our sincere hope that group and individual efforts in breeding this beautiful yet delicate species will someday meet the market demand for terrapins, whether as food or pets, and that commercial harvesting from the wild can be eradicated altogether.   Indeed, as stewards of the earth's flora and fauna, our goal should be the preservation of all species; especially the ones that have captured our hearts and dazzled us with their incredible beauty, variation and tameness like the Diamondback Terrapin.  Let's keep the grin on the terrapin...