Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Catching diamondback terrapins on Kiawah Island

Turtles. I love them. You love them. From Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the University of Maryland Terps, the members of order Testudines are iconic, remarkable animals. Unfortunately, wild turtles have had a hard time in recent historical time, with almost 50% of turtle species endangered or threatened worldwide. In fact, last year (2011) was designated the year of the turtle in order to raise awareness about turtles' plight. 
This past week I was in Kiawah Island, South Carolina participating in the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) survey ran by Davidson College and The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). This long-term survey of diamondback terrapins has been going steady since 1983 (crazy!). The work that has been happening at Kiwah Island has revealed a decline in terrapin populations across the duration of the study that is associated with crab traps.  

Diamondback terrapins are the only turtle in the U.S. that lives in brackish water, and they have several unique adaptations to deal with the difficulties of saltwater, including salt-excreting glands around their eyes.

A male terrapin with a damaged right foot
How do you catch terrapins? Well, you have to wait until low tide and drag large seine nets through muddy, oyster (sharp) covered tidal creeks. It can be tough work, but you can't really complain while hanging out by the ocean and catching turtles all day.  
A nice haul of terrapins ready for weighing, measuring, and marking, etc.

When not catching turtles, we had a few opportunities to run around and observe wildlife like this beautiful pair of eastern coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum).

The highlight had to be Matt Holding and I giving two Davison College students their first experience in armadillo chasing: a true pastime of wildlife scientists.
From left to right: Rob Denton, Whitner Chase, Tia Akins, the armadillo, and Matt Holding
For more information about Southeastern Reptiles and Amphibians along with the great work done by Dr. Mike Dorcas and his students, visit here.


  1. As a freshman in 1971 at Richard Stockton State in NJ, I got my introduction to herpetology studying the nesting habits of Malaclemys under the direction of Dr. Roger C. Wood. We did a project on Brigantine Island, and were able to observe both the nesting and subsequent emergence of the hatching babies.

    And what's weird is my name is...(wait for it) Bob Denton.

  2. Haha, wow that is crazy! Are you still in the field? I would love to go back to Kiawah, but other responsibilities keep getting in the way of chasing turtles for fun.