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Outreach

Science and Community Education Support Diamondback Terrapin Survival


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The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), named for the pronounced bumps on the central spine of its shell, ranges from Texas to Massachusetts. It is the only turtle restricted to brackish coastal waters along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, and like most turtle species, its numbers are declining. The markings and coloring of diamondback terrapins are distinct and vary with habitat and region. No two are alike, but you'll be lucky to see even one.

Diamondback terrapins are well camouflaged among mangrove roots diamondback terrapin float
Above left: Diamondback terrapins are well camouflaged among mangrove roots. [larger version]

Above right: The diamondback terrapin float is pulled along the Children's Gasparilla Parade route as part of Tampa Preparatory School’s mission to share information about terrapins and other turtles. [larger version]

Even for fishermen and marine scientists who frequently observe wildlife within the marshes, tidal creeks, and mangrove forests that fringe Florida's undeveloped shores, seeing a diamondback terrapin in the wild is uncommon. The turtles are well camouflaged and fast swimmers; they are inclined to hide in submerged mangrove roots or seek the deeper waters of dark tidal creeks as humans approach.

The population status of these elusive creatures, like that of most turtles, is predominantly declining or simply unknown for the 16 coastal States where terrapins are found. In a 2004 survey conducted for the Third Workshop on the Ecology, Status, and Conservation of Diamondback Terrapins, Florida turtle researchers ranked the top threats to terrapin survival but pointed out that too few data are available to assess their status accurately. Dominant threats varied by region, but consistently topping the list were death in crab traps, loss of habitat, and predation. The top recommended action was to initiate field studies.

With Florida representing 20 percent of the total terrapin habitat range, impacts and policies that affect terrapins in Florida will greatly influence the overall conservation of the species. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is concerned about threats to the species, but they need better data before making any management recommendations.

"There is so much we don't know," said Kristen Hart, a USGS biologist who studies terrapins. Hart also serves as Florida Regional Representative of the Diamondback Terrapin Working Group, an association of individuals from academic, scientific, regulatory, and private organizations working to promote diamondback terrapin conservation. "The paucity of data and inconsistency of available information prevent us from being able to say anything meaningful about survival, abundance, or population dynamics. If we start now, 2009 would be our baseline, but it would help immensely if we did start now. Then we could develop a consistent data program that describes terrapin population trends and what causes them."

Diamondback terrapin and map of terrapin range
Above: Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin); note distinctive diamondback ridges on shell spine. The diamondback terrapin ranges from the coastal areas of Texas as far north as Massachusetts. [larger version]

"Loss of nesting habitat, encounters with automobiles, predation, commercial harvest, and incidental drowning in crab pots" are some of the significant threats to terrapin survival, said biologist George Heinrich of Heinrich Ecological Services, who previously served as the Florida Regional Representative with the Diamondback Terrapin Working Group. While most biologists agree that habitat loss and damage to nesting habitat caused by human activity pose a grave threat to terrapins, addressing this threat presents a big challenge. Any conservation decisions made by Federal, State, or local land managers will have to be based on scientific data, which take time to gather. In the meantime, community awareness and grassroots activities may be the most effective way to protect the diamondback terrapin.

Students collect mangrove propagules Red mangrove propagules on display
Above left: Students collect mangrove propagules (seeds) from the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). The propagules will be part of an artistic display while they develop roots. [larger version]

Above right: Red mangrove propagules on display in the sunny front entrance to Tampa Preparatory School. [larger version]

"Reaching the public is critical," said Joseph Butler, Senior Co-Chair of the Diamondback Terrapin Working Group and biologist at the University of North Florida. "If the public is more familiar with the natural history of terrapins and has a better understanding of the threats facing this species, people will be more likely to assist in conservation efforts." One way to reach the public is through workshops, and for the past 16 years Heinrich has been the primary instructor for an annual workshop focused on the natural history and conservation of Florida turtles. Building on the idea that education is the key to conservation, Heinrich's workshop includes field trips, resources, and activities designed for educators and conservationists who want to share their new knowledge.

At Tampa Preparatory School, turtle awareness goes back to 1976, when the terrapin was chosen as the school mascot. Then, 3 years ago, when the Alumni Association decided to come up with an activity that was fun, educational, beneficial to the community, and tied to an environmental issue, it seemed obvious to use the mascot to raise community awareness about turtles, especially the diamondback terrapin. The school's property is along the shore of the brackish-water section of the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa, primary terrapin habitat. Ann Tihansky, a Tampa Prep alumna and USGS scientist, suggested that the school create a custom-designed fiberglass diamondback terrapin on wheels that could be pulled by hand and displayed as a float in the local annual Children's Gasparilla Parade. Making the turtle involved the skillful work of boat-builder Joey Silvernail and the artistic and production talents of Tihansky and Jordan Sanford, another USGS scientist. Together, they designed the float not only to look like a diamondback terrapin but also to be sturdy enough to use year after year.

"The parade attracts more than 250,000 people, so it's a great way to raise awareness about the school and terrapin conservation," said Robin Kennedy, Tampa Prep's Director of Alumni Relations and Communication. "We designed stickers that say ‘Support turtle conservation; Tampa Prep does,' and our students pass them out along with plush turtles and USGS bookmarks that highlight fun facts about sea turtles, box turtles, and the diamondback terrapin. Every year we look for additional educational material that would be suitable to hand out," said Kennedy.

Another USGS scientist who has been participating in community education projects to benefit natural resources is Tom Smith, a USGS biologist specializing in mangroves. Smith has been collaborating with environmental artist Xavier Cortada in a participatory environmental art project called the Reclamation Project. The project engages students from Tampa and Shorecrest Preparatory Schools, teaching them about mangroves and the important habitat that mangroves provide to terrapins, as well as many other coastal wetland species.

Cortada enlists students to collect mangrove propagules (seeds) from the wild, and creates artistic installations of the seedlings in public areas while they develop roots. Once the roots are sufficiently developed, students plant the seedlings in reclamation areas. Smith supervises the students when they collect the mangrove propagules and again during planting. He uses data from the project to evaluate mangrove-restoration methods and looks at survival-success rates, along with other information about mangrove-forest ecology.

"Through the Reclamation Project, we give students a unique experience that many would not have otherwise," said Cortada, who sees many benefits for the community. "It's likely that these students will always maintain a connection to the area where they worked," said Cortada.

Resource-education programs like these increase community awareness and support. Both the terrapin and the community will benefit.

Fun Facts About the Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin
  • Diamondback terrapins live in brackish-water salt marshes and mangroves along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to the Texas-Mexico border.

  • In colder climates, terrapins "brumate." (Though physiologically different from hibernation, brumation is the reptilian equivalent to sleeping through the winter.)

  • Once mature, females are on average three times as large as males of the same age—a difference in size called sexual dimorphism. Full-grown females are about the same size as a football.

  • Terrapins generally stay close to their home-base area—a tendency known as "high site fidelity" or "philopatry."

  • Terrapins may live as long as 40 years or more in the wild.

  • Terrapins have unique skin coloring and patterns—some have totally black skin, some gray skin with black spots, and still others black stripes on white skin.

  • A terrapin can retract fully into its shell, which provides protection from sharks and raccoons.

  • The gender of a developing baby turtle is determined by the temperature of the nest chamber—warmer temperatures produce females, whereas cooler temperatures produce males. This phenomenon is called environmental or temperature-dependent sex determination.

  • Terrapins eat snails, mollusks, and crabs.

  • Females must come ashore to find dry, upland substrate for egg laying.

  • The terrapin is listed as a "species of special concern" in many States throughout its range, owing to loss of habitat and incidental capture and mortality in traps fished for blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus).

Related Web Sites
Diamondback Terrapin Working Group
conservation group
Reclamation Project
Xavier Cortada participatory art

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Research
cover story:
CO2 May Help Wetlands Keep Pace with Sea-Level Rise

Erosion Doubles Along Alaska's Arctic Coast

Shrinking Beaufort Sea Coastline

Rapid Disappearance of Antarctica's Ice Shelves

Effects of Climate Change on Infectious Diseases

Outreach Diamondback Terrapin Survival

Science Fairs in Falmouth, MA

Meetings Coastal Erosion Workshop in Ghana

Awards Findings Used to Preserve Coral Reef

Ted Melis Receives DOI Meritorious Service Award

High-Flow Experiment from Dam Leads to Awards

Researchers Receive DOI Meritorious Service Awards

Miles Receives Diversity Award

Group Honored for Research on Alaska

Government Communicators Award

Staff Team Wins Silver in Curling Club Nationals

Publications May 2009 Publications List


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Updated December 02, 2016 @ 12:09 PM (JSS)