When I hear the words ‘diamondback terrapin’, I can’t help but picture a turtle with a shell made out of diamonds. Wouldn’t that be amazing? It would be the ultimate protective shell for the terrapin, though I have no doubt humans would find a way to hunt them for the value of the gems on their backs. So it’s probably for the best that turtles with real diamondbacks don’t exist.

Diamondback terrapins are found in the eastern US, from Cape Cod to Florida. They live in any areas of salt water they can find, but are particularly fond of reedy swamps. Though diamondbacks like to be in salt water, they do require fresh water for drinking, which is why they are found along the coast but not in the ocean itself.

A lovely picture showing the diamondback’s very webbed hind feet.
Image by Ltshears, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Diamondback terrapins don’t get super large, with females reaching 23 cm in length, and males only attaining lengths of 13 cm. This size difference between sexes is greater than any other in North American turtles. The name diamondback, sadly, does not come from the substance of the turtles’ shells, but rather the pattern on them. Shell colour can range from brown to grey, with patterns varying from the classic diamond shape. Their feet are very webbed, making these turtles strong swimmers.

Living in salt water poses some difficulties for a species that is not 100% committed to a marine lifestyle. To manage their in-between habitat, diamondback turtles have a number of different coping mechanisms. To prevent excessive intake of salt, the diamondbacks’ skins are impermeable to salt, and have tear ducts that can excrete salt when the turtles are dehydrated. In order to obtain fresh drinking water, diamondback terrapins will do some unusual things, such as drinking the fresh water layer that pools on the surface of salt water during rainfalls, or sitting with their mouths open and heads pointed to the sky to catch raindrops.

A baby terrapin looking pretty cute.
Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reproduction in diamondback terrapins starts in the spring, though females will nest throughout the year. Female terrapins will mate with multiple males and store the sperm for a long time — sometimes years. This lets the female nest when it is convenient for her, and results in clutches of eggs with multiple fathers. They usually lay between 4-8 eggs, which hatch after 60-85 days. Hatchlings are only a inch long, and reach sexual maturity after about seven years.

Due to their delicious meat, diamondback terrapins were almost hunted to extinction in the 1900s. They have since made a comeback, thanks in part to protection efforts. Habitat loss and human disturbances remain a problem today, however, so the terrapin currently has a near threatened status. Hopefully we’ve learned from our mistakes and won’t send these guys to the brink any time soon!

Cover image by J.D. Willson, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit