“Look at those eyes!”
It’s a sun-spangled morning on a Georgia tidal creek and the green-hued eyes of a diamondback terrapin have caught Ashley Raybould’s. “I’ve seen the really blue ones but not the turquoise ones,” the DNR wildlife technician says, turning the turtle so others on the survey boat can see.
Diamondback terrapins aren’t new to awww. They are jewels in the marsh mud, with speckled skin, mouths that look like they’re sporting lipstick and googly eyes that sometimes glisten as if dusted with glitter.
But these hand-sized turtles found in salt marshes and estuaries from Cape Cod on the Atlantic to Texas on the Gulf also share a darker feature: Declines in diamondback populations have been reported across their range. DNR has been sampling tidal creeks this spring to check the species’ status in Georgia.
“We want to assess whether their population is increasing, stable or decreasing,” said Mark Dodd, a senior biologist with the agency’s Wildlife Conservation Section.
More than a century ago, no one was counting. The terrapins likely named for the diamond-shaped rings on their carapace were abundant. However, in the 1800s they were elevated from “trash food” to the stuff of gourmet soups and stews. Prices soared. A dozen 6-inch terrapins could bring $45. Harvest surged. The take in Georgia topped 17 tons in both 1887 and 1888, according to a report by Dodd.
The trade was unsustainable, of course. And in the 1920s it nose-dived, sapped by overharvest, the Great Depression and Prohibition laws that banned the sherry considered key to terrapin stews and soups.
State protections have since helped some populations recover. Yet terrapins face other threats: habitat loss, contaminated waterways, death on roads, drowning in crab pots – particularly “ghost traps,” those abandoned or left unattended for days. A Georgia researcher found 133 dead in two ghost traps in 2007.
For a native turtle rated an indicator of healthy saltmarshes and a high-priority species in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, the question is what to do and how? The answers require data.
This year, Dodd and Raybould began collecting it via a new terrapin-netting technique: pulling a small trawl of large mesh by boat, instead of seining creeks by hand – which takes more people and time.
At low tide last month they motored into an olive-colored creek near St. Simons Island. Dodd first boated up the creek to count terrapins, the heads of curious ones popping up like bubbles. Cat Orientale and Michael Palandri, AmeriCorps members working with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and volunteering with DNR for the day, helped scan the surface.
Dodd then deployed the trawl, lining the net out before lowering from a boom two heavy metal “doors” designed to keep the net yawning open. In three passes, the crew caught 18 terrapins total. The counts sank as the tide rose and the creek widened, seeping into the Spartina, offering more water to escape.
It wasn’t a stellar catch. Last year, they had nearly 80 by hand-seining the creek, which has an estimated 450 terrapins. But the trawling tryout ended on a high note, netting 78 over the next two days.
Each of the terrapins, scrabbling around in knee-high tubs, was weighed, measured, photographed, marked and released. Re-captures were recorded. The details will help document local populations, informing efforts to ease threats and conserve these brackish-water beauties for generations to come.
The goal, Dodd says, is restoring diamondback terrapins so they “fulfill their ecological role in the estuary” and ensuring “the long-term viability of the terrapin population in Georgia.”
In short, making sure the future is bright for one of our most eye-catching turtles.