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Creature Feature: The Maryland Terrapin

I break out the khaki pants and safari hat to pull back the veil of mystery that cloaks the wondrous Maryland Terrapin. Steve Irwin ain't got nuthin' on me!

Scott Halleran

As some of you know, in addition to my work here at the Musket I also do a bit of writing over at We ran a feature last year that I had some fun with and I thought, given that it's Maryland Week and the turtles have been (chirping? croaking? what do they actually DO?) I'd dust it off and drop some animal knowledge.


I’m a curious soul, and sometimes the biggest questions are right there in front of your face. It’s Maryland week, and I found myself staring at my computer in the course of a little research and wondering "what the hell is a terrapin?" Like most of you I know it’s a turtle that I’ve been cryptically told to fear but what KIND of turtle? Why should I fear it? Then it occurred to me that I’ve been watching these guys play for 25 years and I couldn’t tell you. That is unacceptable. We need to know more. Let’s take a look, shall we?

I quickly ran across a very helpful page from the State of Maryland website that laid out in wonderful detail exactly what type of turtle we were talking about and even discussed its history and selection as a mascot. This Internet thing really is quite handy. So let’s get rolling….journey with me to the beautiful Chesapeake Bay……

The Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) was made the State reptile and official mascot of the University of Maryland College Park in 1994 (Chapter 476, Acts of 1994; Code State Government Article, sec. 13-313). As mascot (also known as Testudo), the Terrapin, however, has been affiliated with the University’s athletic program since 1933.

How informative! Do go on….

Maryland has acted to protect Diamondback Terrapins. Effective July 1, 2007, it is unlawful to take or possess them for commercial purposes (Chapters 117 & 118, Acts of 2007; Code Natural Resources Article, sec. 4-902).

I don’t see anything in there about hanging 4 TDs on them in the 1st quarter, so Slaton and his 2006 co-horts are safe. Whew!

Chesapeake diamondbacks are distinguished by diamond-shaped, concentric rings on the scutes of their upper shells. They are predators whose preference for unpolluted saltwater make them indicators of healthy marsh and river systems.

"Honey, look! A terrapin! This water is safe for bathing, drinking and hiring re-tread coaches from basketball schools!"

In winter, they hibernate underwater in mud.

Considering they’ve put up twin 2-10 seasons in the last 3 years, I honestly can’t blame them.

Around late May, diamondback terrapin emerge to mate, nest, and bask in the sun on coastal dunes or narrow sandy beaches.

And when your basketball school’s basketball team hasn’t sniffed a Final Four in the decade since their ‘One Shining Moment’ – again – understandable.

Terrapin are sexually dimorphic, with females much larger than males. Males range between 4 and 5 inches, while females average nearly 7 inches. The largest terrapin on record was a female measuring 9 inches. This disparity continues in the time needed to reach maturity as well. Males reach maturity at 3 years old, while females are not full grown until age 7.

So it could be worse. We could be playing a team of FEMALE terrapins. I like the direction this is going. I’m feeling good.

A long lived species, the diamondback terrapin can reach ages in excess of 20 years.

But probably still not long enough to see Edsall’s re-building project all the way through.

Carnivores, their diet includes mollusks, insects, crustaceans, middling FCS teams and small fish.

I may have added one of those.

Chesapeake colonists ate terrapin prepared Native-American fashion, roasted whole in live coals. Abundant and easy to catch, terrapin were so ample that landowners often fed their slaves and indentured servants a staple diet of terrapin meat.

When does the ‘fear’ part kick in?

Later, in the 19th century, the turtle was appreciated as gourmet food, especially in a stew laced with cream and sherry.

Still not scared.

Subsequently, tremendous retail demand and heavy fishing of the terrapin nearly depleted its supply, and protective laws were enacted.

Oh God! It was a species so soundly beaten down and abused that laws were enacted to propagate it’s existence and ensure the survival of the species! Or as we call it "Notre Dame football." That IS fearsome!

Thanks for joining me in this wonderful journey of discovery and learning. Knowledge is power. And I’d like to point out that we spent several hundred words making fun of the Terps without even once mentioning those uniforms. No small feat!