Tracking Elusive Terrapin Yields Important Discovery

Legendary “Bigfoot” of Buzzards Bay

“Bigfoot” of Massachusetts SouthCoast — Diamondback Terrapin

An aura of mystery rivaling that of Bigfoot attends the diamondbacks of Buzzards Bay,” writes Daniel Sheldon Lee in his 2004 book, Buzzards Bay: A Journey of Discovery.  Lee continues, “They are not plentiful; in many of their habitats, nobody even knows they’re there.”  Later Lee wrote, “Don Lewis, a local expert on the reptiles, claims that whenever he has found suitable habitat in Buzzards Bay, he has found terrapins.  You simply need to be an expert to find them.”  More accurately, Turtle Journal’s Don Lewis would say, you need a wide network of curious citizen scientists to alert you to signs of these Buzzards Bay “Bigfoots.”

Finding such elusive critters requries knowledge, expertise, practice and luck. The sort of “luck” that Pasteur described in his famous quote, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

Female Terrapin Leaves Tracks during Nesting Run

On shore to nest, female terrapins leave distinctive tracks in the soft sand.  The plastron, her bottom shell, smooths the ground and often her tail carves a line down the center of this smoothness.  Her powerful limbs leave “commas” in the sand bracketing the flat center.  Seeing a turtle with tracks behind her helps to reinforce these lessons.

 Tracking the Elusive Diamondback Terrapin

In the field, it proves a little more challenging when you scour a well trodden beach for tracks that may, or may not, belong to the Buzzards Bay Bigfoot.  On Thursday morning’s high tide, Turtle Journal identified terrapin tracks at a newly discovered nesting site in Sippican Harbor.  The video above takes you along for the adventure.  Will the trail end with only ephemeral footprints in the sand?  Or will we successfully track down a legendary diamondback terrapin?

Very Special Terrapin Reveals Sippican Secret

In this case, we not only discovered a rare diamondback terrapin, but this turtle gave us a research breakthrough.  We have been capturing and marking terrapins in the Sippican Harbor mating aggregation for a decade.  Yet, we had never found one of these turtles at a nesting site; not a single turtle.  This one proved the first terrapin netted in the Head of Sippican Harbor to have been idenfitied at a nesting location.

Becky Nourse Nets Terrapin #265 in Sipican Harbor

This female, Terrapin #265,  was first captured at the Head of Harbor mating aggregation on May 30th, 2005 when she was a young lady of nine years of age.  Back then she measured 18.7 centimeters shell length and weighed 1133 grams.  Today, she has grown to 19.85 centimeters long and weighs 1344 grams.  She also has the distinction of being the only diamondback terrapin that we have observed in Buzzards Bay (or Cape Cod Bay) with no spots, marks or patterns on her blue-gray skin. 

With leadership from an engaged community of citizen scientists abutting this newly discovered  nesting site, Turtle Journal hopes we can make great strides to restore the dwindling terrapin population in Sippican Harbor.


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