Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Species Spotlight: Terrapin

May 14, 2012, 11:22 am

By Heather Crowley

Exploring parks offers amazing opportunities to spot different types of wildlife. While on your wildlife watch mission, don’t forget to look to the water. Plenty of animals make their habitat in the waters in and around parks.

The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) can be found along the Atlantic Coast of the United States, all the way from Cape Cod down to Florida. A terrapin is a turtle that lives in brackish waters, often in tidal marshes, estuaries and lagoons. Terrapins also live along the Gulf Coast to Texas. The diamond-shaped growth rings on the turtles’ shells give them their namesake.

Females are typically larger than their male counterparts, reaching up to 7.5 inches. Despite being small, terrapins have a lifespan of 25-40 years. Although terrapins enjoy living in brackish waters, they elect to lay their eggs on sandy beaches. Each female usually lays between eight and 12 light pink eggs during the month of June or July.

Terrapins have caused quite a ruckus at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on two separate occasions, shutting down air traffic when trying to cross the runways. Humans play an important role in the lives of terrapins, often in a destructive way. Each year, terrapins crossing roads to get to breeding grounds are killed. Others get caught in nets and drown, while others die due to pollutants in the water. In some states, theses animals are still collected for food.

Some areas are making important strides in saving this species. The Diamondback Terrapin Research Program at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge studies the behavior of these turtles so they can be better protected. By tagging and tracking terrapins, scientists can analyze their movements as well as population size.


Many people recognize the name terrapin because of its association as the University of Maryland’s mascot. UMD’s mascot is a terrapin named Testudo.

The temperature of the nest determines the gender of the hatchlings. A higher temperature results in more females, while low temperatures yield more males.

These turtles hibernate during the winter.

Skunks, raccoons, foxes and other animals eat terrapin eggs and often deplete the population of new hatchlings.

Photo courtesy NPS