The Reader: Ecology and Conservation of the Diamond-backed Terrapin

      Terrapins appear at football and basketball games as the University of Maryland’s mascot. These remarkable creatures are even more fascinating in real life as described in Ecology and Conservation of the Diamond-Backed Terrapin edited by Willem M Roosenburg and Victor S. Kennedy.

      This collection of 18 scholarly papers makes a detailed summary of the terrapin’s natural history, threats to the population, ongoing conservation efforts and the value of the terrapin as an indicator of the quality of an estuarine system.

      Terrapins are recognized as a model for study of exploitation and environmental degradation. Many of the book’s chapters are rather weighty reports on scientific studies with extensive references, but they are filled with fascinating tidbits. For example diamond­back terrapins were mentioned in 1793 when George Washington held his first cabinet meeting. Some of our knowledge about the species is based on its appearance from recipes for turtle stew and soup in cookbooks from Grover Cleveland’s first term.

      The decline of demand for terrapins as human food may be due in part to Prohibition, which cut off the sherry and madeira that was a critical ingredient in those recipes. It also may have been just a change in popular tastes.

     Today terrapin populations are threatened by a variety of predators: raccoons, foxes, otters, rats and birds that attack nests and hatchlings. Human development of shorelines also reduces the areas suitable for nesting. Climate change plays a part as rising water levels intrude on nesting areas, and increased temperatures change the ratio of males to females as eggs develop. Terrapins also perish in crab traps. 

       Hopeful signs for terrapin protection include environmental education and “headstarting,” to incubate eggs and nurture hatchlings for eventual release. Among headstarting programs is the restoration of Poplar Island to feature turtle habitat, with Maryland schoolchildren raising hundreds of hatchlings. The young turtles become part of the state’s environmental literacy efforts as students learn about other ecological topics, record growth data and at the end of the year return the young turtles to Poplar Island for release after each is fitted with a data transponder tag.

      This book should provide lots of technical and public support for efforts to improve the outlook for terrapins as natural treasures for future generations.


Ecology and Conservation of the Diamond-Backed ­Terrapin: Johns Hopkins University Press