Southern Agenda

Jewels of the Marsh

From July into September, quarter-sized baby diamondback terrapins clamber from their nests above the high-tide line of South Carolina salt marshes. The continent’s only turtles that live in such brackish estuaries, the terrapins once abundantly roamed the tidal creeks, pluff mud, and spartina grasses along the Eastern Seaboard. “They are so variable in coloration; their shells can be orange or green or brown or black, with a pattern that looks like diamonds,” says Andrew Grosse, the state herpetologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Over the years, their populations have taken repeated hits—first because they starred in turtle soup along with sherry, and now due to entanglement in crab traps, car strikes, and coastal development. Grosse and his colleagues have raised and released young terrapins to boost numbers, developed crab traps that keep terrapins out, and conducted surveys to understand their habitats and movements. “Most people don’t know they are out there,” Grosse says, “but if you kayak or boat into a tidal creek early in the morning, look for little heads popping up in front of you.” You can report any sightings to SCDNR to help with the research.