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In Pursuit of Diamondback Terrapins

The Ladies of the Lagoon fund a collaborative study of the adaptive and elusive terrapin

Eastern Florida diamondback terrapin — Malacleymys terrapin tequesta

Eastern Florida diamondback terrapin — Malacleymys terrapin tequesta

Turtles flourish in Florida. They are by no means exclusive to the state, but our mild climate, sandy soils and year-round food sources have for millennia offered the optimum conditions for these ancient reptiles to thrive. We celebrate our nesting sea turtles, gopher tortoises and diverse freshwater turtles, but there is one turtle — the diamondback terrapin — that has inhabited the Indian River Lagoon for years, but for which only recently has there been a concerted effort to identify its strongholds. 

Although “turtle” is the more familiar name for four-legged shelled reptiles, in the British Isles, “terrapin” refers to any species of turtle — freshwater, brackish water or, as box turtles are, terrestrial. It is not surprising, then, that the name of this east coast reptile is said to have originated with early British settlers in North America. 

Florida is home to 30 turtle species and an additional 15 subspecies. Its diamondback terrapins include four of the aforesaid subspecies, believed to be distributed somewhat evenly along our 1,300-mile coast, although the species ranges from New England to Texas. Our subspecies in the Indian River Lagoon, which is generally described as darker than the others, is the eastern Florida diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin tequesta) and ranges from St. Augustine to south Miami.