`Who does not love a turtle?'

On the Bay

Terrapin: The state's official reptile since 1994, the diamondback terrapin nevertheless has been a neglected creature. It's now gaining overdue recognition.

May 19, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

OVERSHADOWED by Mother's Day, the governor's proclamation last weekend of May 13 as Diamondback Terrapin Day might take a few years to catch on, but Marguerite Whilden predicts it will be big.

"Not everyone fishes, but who does not love a turtle?" asks the fisheries outreach and education specialist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Whilden has set up a "Terrapin Station" Web site (name borrowed from an old Grateful Dead album) at www.dnr.state. md.us/terrapin. Through nature studies, nesting beach protection, hatch-and-release programs and pure turtle appeal, she sees Malaclemys terrapin as an ambassador to engage the 85 percent of the public who don't routinely fish the Chesapeake.

Although it has been the state's official reptile since 1994, and the University of Maryland's official mascot since 1933, the diamondback is one of our more neglected bay creatures.

There are worse things than neglect, of course. Our northern diamondback, one of seven subspecies that range from Canada to Mexico, was almost loved to death. Its flavor was praised by visitors to Maryland from Lafayette to Oliver Wendell Holmes, and a Baltimore mayoral candidate in 1938 was only half-joking when he promised "a terrapin in every pot."

By the late 1930s, when a single large terrapin might fetch a waterman $8, the bay's diamondbacks had been pursued to the point of commercial extinction. Changing times and tastes brought them back. It took a fearsome amount of preparation -- and many say a fearsome amount of sherry -- to render the terrapin's diviner qualities to the palate.

Today they are rare on menus. But a new day of the turtle may be dawning. Through the good offices of terrapin devotees such as Whilden, other qualities of the diamondback are gaining overdue recognition.

Diamondbacks are ubiquitous habitues of the East and Gulf coasts' fabulously productive shallows and marshy edges -- fit icons for the shallow Chesapeake, which stretches about 1 million feet long and up to 100,000 feet wide but averages only 22 feet deep.

The bay similarly boasts world-class edges, winding about 8,500 miles along its 185-mile length.

Terrapins have personality to spare, if one takes time to know them. They can live half a century in the wild, and females don't reach sexual maturity until 12.

Each is unique, its soft skin individually striped and whorled, and mottled in soft, creamy blacks and grays and bluish tones. Their dark, hard-shelled backs range from almost black to light olive, intricately patterned into hexagons and pentagons (the "diamonds" in diamondback).

Their plastrons, or undershells, are as variably patterned as their skin, in colors ranging from cheddary orange, through lemony and olive, to amber. They seem at least as individual as humans. And terrapins have a way of catching one's eye, where something profound passes between reptile and human.

I have heard it described this way by a scientist who has spent more than a decade tracking thousands of terrapins on the Patuxent River. And I have seen a waterman, who catches and sells terrapins by the boatload, throw a big one back because, he said, "I let it catch my eye, and I had to let it go."

There is much to learn about terrapins, which appear to home in on the same patch of beach year after year to nest. Tantalizing evidence suggests that some beaches produce mostly male babies, while others might be female beaches.

Terrapins require prime bay waterfront -- the sandy beaches where they bury their delicate, translucent eggs from June through October. This gives us another reason to rethink waterfront development.

Consider what terrapins inspired among students in Whilden's "head start" program, which lends baby terrapins to schools to tend in aquariums over the winter.

The next spring they are tagged and returned to the bay (the eggs they hatch from are salvaged from nests laid in spots such as gardens and compost heaps, where survival wouldn't be likely).

Toting buckets of baby terrapins, the students from Samuel Ogle Elementary School in Bowie appeared at a Board of Public Works session and persuaded Gov. Parris N. Glendening to overrule his Department of Environment on a bulkheading permit. The beachfront property owners were ordered to come up with a redesign that would leave access for nesting terrapins.

Parkville High School, Loch Raven Academy and others are already hooked on terrapins.

Whilden has also been working with beachfront owners around Annapolis to post "terrapin sanctuary" signs along their shores. Private waterfront owners, she says, are often grateful for anything that might help keep partyers and people walking dogs off their waterfront.

It's high time for the terrapin to get its due -- and the protection it needs to survive. It is astounding that, four centuries after Europeans settled the bay, one of its most fascinating inhabitants remains little understood and appreciated.

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