Terrapins — the Small and the Large of Them

Tiny Diamondback Terrapin Hatchling

Diamondback terrapins come in all sizes, especially at this time of year.  We have large females who crawl ashore from coastal estuaries to find sandy upland nesting sites.  And we have tiny baby terrapins who hatched late last fall; so late that they were forced to remain in their nest over winter.  As spring days heat the sand, these hatchlings tunnel upward and wander about in search of their protective salt marsh nursery.

Large Diamondback Terrapin Female

Female terrapins on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts, like the beauty seen above, measure nearly 9 inches long (shell length) and weigh up to 4 pounds … more than 600 times the mass of a tiny hatchling.  If humans had the same infant-adult size ratio, we’d grow to nearly two tons.

Over-Wintered Diamondback Terrapin Hatchling

On June 1st, a local resident found a tiny hatchling aimlessly roaming a small beach on Buttermilk Bay in the village of Buzzards Bay.  The rescuer brought this seemingly lost hatchling to the National Marine Life Center.  Director Kathy Zagzebski immediately contacted Turtle Journal.  This little one measured 1 inch shell length and 1/10th of an ounce mass.  The Jefferson nickel above gives a visual sense of the hatchling’s tiny size.  The baby is rehydrating today before it is released into the nursery salt marsh of Buttermilk Bay.

Large Diamondback Terrapin Nesting

On the SouthCoast this year, female terrapins have been engaged in nesting since May 28th.  Turtles we have tracked for more than eight years are nesting ten days to two weeks early like this large terrapin beginning her nest on the barrier beach of Aucoot Cove off Buzzards Bay.

Large Diamondback Terrapin Egg

Her egg alone measured 50% longer than the tiny Buttermilk Bay hatchling and weighed nearly three times its mass.  The photograph offers a nice visual contrast with the terrapin shot above.  In our longitudinal research of terrapins in Massachusetts, we have learned that embryos increase in mass, as much as 15%, while incubating in the egg underground.  So, the hatchling that emerges from this large egg would like be four times the mass of the Buttermilk Bay baby.

Rufus the Turtle Dog Guards Terrapin Nest

Yet, no matter what emerges from these terrapin eggs, whether tiny hatchlings like the one from Buttermilk Bay or ample sized babies like the one we anticipate from the Aucoot Cove egg, Rufus the Turtle Dog will protect them all.  Above, Rufus stands guard above exposed eggs while the Turtle Journal team caps the nest and installs a predator excluder/turtle protector.

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