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Diamondback Terrapin

Malaclemys terrapin

Florida Rules

One diamondback terrapin can be taken from the wild per person per day. Methods of take are limited to catching by hand, baited hooks, minnow seine nets and dip nets. Total possession limit per person is two terrapins. One terrapin may be transported at a time. No eggs may be taken from the wild or transported.

Appearance

A mangrove terrapin

Diamondback terrapins are medium-sized turtles that can be found in brackish water habitats throughout Florida. Five subspecies occur in Florida: Carolina (M. t. centrata), Florida east coast (M. t. tequesta), mangrove (M. t. rhizophorarum), ornate (M. t. macrospilota) and Mississippi (M. t. pileata). Three of these subspecies are endemic to Florida, meaning they can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

Measuring at about 9.4 inches long, female diamondback terrapins are typically larger than males, which measure about 5.5 inches in length. Diamondback terrapins can usually be distinguished by the pattern on their shell, which consists of concentric rings and a “diamond-like” pattern with knobs along their backs. The shell is often multi-colored with outer rings being lighter than inner rings. In some cases, the shell is completely dark. The plastron, or underside of the shell, can be yellow or orange, though it is sometimes all black. Their skin is often grey to pale white with black spots or bars. Some individuals may lack markings, or may have a pink hue around the cheeks.

Behavior

An ornate diamondback terrapin covered in sea foam bubbles.

Diamondback terrapins are active during daylight hours for most of the year. Within brackish water habitats, terrapins may be found basking in open or densely vegetated areas, submerged in muddy substrates, foraging on land or water and hiding under vegetation to protect themselves from predators or the elements. In Florida, males reach maturity between two and three years of age and females reach maturity between four and five years of age. Terrapins have been known to live for up to 40 years in captivity, and scientists estimate that they typically live for about 25 years in the wild.

In Florida, courtship occurs in the spring, between March and May. Nesting usually takes place during the day in sparsely vegetative sandy areas above the high tide line. Nesting season occurs from April through July, but may be extended depending on the area. Females can lay two or three times per year, with clutch size ranging from five to ten eggs.

Diamondback terrapins eat a variety of foods including snails, crabs, clams, mussels, worms, fish and plants.

Habitat

This is a range map for the five Florida subspecies of diamondback terrapins. It shows that these turtles live along Florida's coasts. The Carolina subspecies is found on the Northeastern coast. The Florida subspecies is found on the east coast, from Volusia County to northern Monroe County. The mangrove subspecies is found in South Florida and the Keys. The ornate subspecies is found on the west coast and in the Panhandle. The Mississippi subspecies is found in the far western Panhandle.

Diamondback terrapins live in brackish water habitats state-wide, including salt marshes, barrier islands, mangrove swamps, tidal creeks and rivers. Little is known about terrapin habitat use during the winter, but in cold weather terrapins may become less active and bury themselves in the muddy substrate under water, beneath undercut banks or in soft sand or mud on banks of rivers, creeks or marshes.

Threats

Diamondback terrapins face a variety of threats, including:

  • Habitat loss: Climate change and other habitat loss and conversion are the drivers behind most threats for diamondback terrapins. Loss of important nesting and foraging habitat are a major concern for population stability.
  • Predation: Predators such as wild hogs, raccoons and rats prey on terrapins at all life stages, although eggs and young terrapins are most vulnerable to predation.
  • Road mortality: Females often crossroads in search of suitable nesting areas and can be struck by cars. The loss of mature females may have large impacts on populations of terrapins.
  • Boat strikes: Accidental collision with boats can injure and kill terrapins.
  • Crab traps: Accidental drownings in blue crab traps occurs when adults enter the traps in search of food and cannot escape.
  • Harvest for the pet trade: Due to their colorful appearance and friendly disposition, terrapins are susceptible to unsustainable wild take for the pet trade.  Because of this threat, diamondback terrapins are listed as a CITES Appendix II species which means that unless trade is closely controlled the species may become threatened with extinction. 

How you can help

Be sure to watch out for terrapins as you drive along the coast in the spring and summer. If you see a terrapin in the road, and if you are safe from oncoming traffic, you may move the turtle across the road in the direction it was heading. 

If you come across an injured diamondback terrapin, contact your FWC Regional Office to find a list of rehabbers in your area. If you suspect that someone is illegally capturing or selling wild diamondback terrapins please contact FWC Wildlife Alert