This is something I wrote for the newsletter sent out by the Galveston Bay Area chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists.
If your wetland adventures take you to brackish areas with saltwater marshes and shell beaches, keep watch for the Texas Diamond-backed terrapin.
Little is known about our state’s only species of terrapin’s limited distribution in the larger Galveston Bay system, so many will be interested if you spot one, according to Jenny Oakley, Environmental Institute of Houston environmental scientist.
As more research is compiled, the health and numbers of the terrapin will be another indicator of the overall health of Texas bays.
EIH has been studying the elusive Texas Diamond-backed terrapin for 10 years and continues to uncover new information about the estuarine species.
The only species of brackish water turtle in North America, the Diamondback terrapin ranges from New England to Texas. The Texas subspecies (Malaclemys terrapin littoralis) found in Galveston Bay, particularly around the North and South Deer islands, is the focus of the EIH study. EIH calls them Diamond-backed terrapins, while Texas Parks & Wildlife and others use the name Diamondback terrapins.
However you spell their name, the terrapins have shells that range from 4 to 9 inches, with the females noticeably larger. It is named for the diamond-shaped scutes or plates that form the carapace. The carapace is dark and the lower shell, plastron, is pale.
It is known for its polka-dot skin and often has a dark mark over its lip that resembles a mustache. The feet are webbed, with bigger and darker back feet.
The terrapins can live up to 40 years. Males reach maturity around age 3, and females mature at age 6, according to the TPWD website.
They prefer to go to the same nesting area each year to lay four to 18 eggs in the spring. Nest temperatures determine the sex of newborns. Warm temperatures produce females.
Habitat destruction is a major threat to the Coastal Bend terrapins’ survival, but they also are drowned in crab traps and killed on roadways.
A recent graduate of University of Houston-Clear Lake/EIH studied the diet of Texas Diamond-backed terrapin and found that male and female terrapins within the same population have significantly different diets.
The larger females with thick jaw plates eat mostly gastropods, especially marsh periwinkles. The males consume more decapods, such as blue crabs.
Although funding has been reduced, EIH research continues. If you see a Texas Diamond-backed terrapin, take a photo, record your location (latitude and longitude are best) and send the information to EIH@uhcl.edu.
For donations, EIH has an Adopt-a-Terrapin program. For $25, you get an adoption certificate for a Texas Diamond-backed terrapin that you name.
I named my terrapin adoptee Iron Fist. The name was chosen after I looked up from my laptop and said to my spouse: “I’m going to adopt a terrapin.” With no questions asked, he answered, “OK.”
“What do you want to name it?” I asked. You can guess what we (mostly he) were watching on Netflix at the time.
So here’s wishing good luck to Iron Fist. I hope you become a terrapin superhero and conquer all your challenges on Galveston Bay.