Savannah Valley District

Brake For Terrapins

Amanda Taylor, Forestry and Natural Resources Agent

(c) 2011 Todd Pierson, some rights reserved

If you drive alongside brackish water between early May and the beginning of July, you may glimpse a secretive creature crossing the road. Be sure to hit the brakes! 

Diamondback terrapins are not just another turtle. Derived from the Algonquin word “torope,” the word “terrapin” describes an animal that doesn’t quite belong in the category of freshwater turtle or sea turtle. They are uniquely adapted to brackish water, where fresh and saltwater meet. South Carolina has nearly half a million square miles of coastal salt marsh, which makes the perfect home for these estuarine reptiles. 

Diamondback terrapins live in estuaries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. They can vary in color, primarily in shade from dark to light tones. They have spotted markings on their skin and swirling concentric circles on their shells. They get the name “diamondback” from the shape of their scutes, the sections of their shells. Like many reptile species, female diamondback terrapins get much larger than their male counterparts. Females average about 9.5 inches long, with males averaging just 5.5 inches. They eat, sleep, and even mate in the water. Males never leave the water; females only leave to find a dry place to lay their eggs. 

While driving near marshes during nesting season, keep an eye out for small objects on the road. If you spot a terrapin and can safely pull over, do so and place her on the other side of the road. Be sure to move her in the direction she was already moving!This is critical to prevent the animal from getting back on the road. If you need to pick the terrapin up, the safest way to handle them is by picking them up from behind with both hands, grasped around their midsection. This helps you keep a firm grip and avoid being bitten or scratched. You should wash your hands well after handling any animal, especially a wild reptile. 

Diamondback terrapins are a vulnerable species due to previous hunting, habitat loss, and incidents with cars and fishing nets. To help protect this unique species, drive a little slower and enjoy the view as you pass our state’s beautiful salt marshes.  

Want to learn more about ongoing research and conservation efforts for the diamondback terrapin? Check out the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources website

South Carolina Sea Grant also has a great article about diamondback terrapins.

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