Ebb and Flow are the newest additions to H2O’s Nature Center; the juvenile diamondback terrapins from Spring Island hatched about two months ago and are already captivating visitors.
These turtles all have concentric diamond-shaped markings on the scutes (plates) of their top shells, but they vary greatly in color and pattern among the seven subspecies. They are typically shades of gray, black, and brown. While females are considerably larger than males, all have large webbed feet that provide them with the strong swimming abilities required in an environment with tidal fluctuations and powerful currents.
The diamondback terrapin’s territory spans the Atlantic and Gulf Coast states from Maine to Texas and they are especially populous in the Carolinas.
Unique among North American turtles in that they tolerate both fresh and salt water, diamondback terrapins prefer the brackish waters of tidal marshes, estuaries, and coastal rivers. (Other indigenous turtles are exclusively either freshwater or marine-dwellers.) Although no natural populations exist in purely freshwater habitats, terrapins are highly aquatic, spending more of their time in the water than basking on land.
These creatures evolved over 200 million years ago; the earliest known fossil remains were found at Edisto Beach, near Charleston, and date back to the Pleistocene epoch (1.65 million years ago).
The name “terrapin” is derived from an Algonquin word used to describe edible turtles, and their popularity as a delicacy extended well into the 1960s. During the years when they were in the greatest demand, an average of 45,000 turtles were caught and shipped to market.
Humans no longer pose the greatest threat to terrapins (discounting loss of habitat, pollution, etc.) – raccoons, foxes, crows and gulls are all nest predators, while wading birds and predatory fish, like sharks and dolphins, all prey on larger terrapins.
The terrapins, in turn, are voracious carnivores, preying on crabs, snails, shrimp, fish, mussels, clams, worms, and insects – a particular favorite is the periwinkle snail, easily crunched between their strong jaws. They are mobile predators, stalking and rapidly striking their quarry, especially during high marsh tides. Diamondback terrapins have long frontal claws that are used to dig nests and tear food into bite-sized chunks which they consume only while under water.
Focusing on the wildlife and habitats of the South Carolina Lowcountry, the H2O Nature Center in Harbour Town features live reptile and amphibian exhibits, hands-on displays, apparel, gifts, books, bicycle/fishing gear rentals and guided Alligator and Wildlife Tours led by Master Naturalist Kat McMenamin through the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Great for field trips, photography excursions and kid’s birthday parties, Alligator and Wildlife Tour reservations may be made by calling (843) 686-5323. For details on other water activities offered by H2O, visit h2osportsonline.com.
By Master Naturalist Kathleen McMenamin, H2O Sports