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Rearing diamondback terrapins

Hi everyone!  It’s Kelly here again!  Boy, have I got some exciting news for y’all!  Next time you walk through Scaly Slimy Spectacular,  don’t forget to peek in the salt marsh habitat by the exit door.  You might notice things look a little different, “little” being the key word here.  And you might have to look really, really closely, but it’ll be worth your while … because we have hatchlings!  That’s right, teeny tiny quarter-sized baby diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are now making their home in our salt marsh habitat. But wait! What happened to the terrapins that were in there before?  No worries, folks!  They were released back into their native salt marshes on Jekyll Island!  Super exciting news, right?

In fact, the Zoo Atlanta Herpetology Team helps local conservation efforts by participating in programs and partnerships for native species. Some of these are visible and a big hit with visitors, such as the diamondback terrapins which are here through the Zoo’s support of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s (GSTC) Jekyll Island Causeway Conservation Program. Others are not as well-known as they take place behind the scenes, such as our work with partners on the eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) program. However, both are valuable and play a big part in supporting our native species. 

Rear-and-release strategies are important for some animals where habitat loss, predation, poaching, road strikes, and the introduction of invasive species have decimated their populations. GSTC’s program focuses on raising awareness of and mitigating the threats to diamondback terrapins. Unfortunately, each year GSTC gets calls about female diamondback terrapins that have been struck by cars on their way to find proper nesting sites. GSTC will take in these females to help rehabilitate them, if possible, for re-release into the wild. However, a lot of these females come in gravid (ready to lay their eggs). So GSTC helps them do this, and once the eggs are laid and hatch out, about half the babies are taken back to release in the salt marsh and half they will grow up for a year and then are released once they are large enough to not be so bite-sized. This is where your Herpetology Team at Zoo Atlanta comes in. Each year the Zoo will take 20 to 25 of these baby terrapins in to help grow them up. They have bountiful food, a large pool to swim in, nice sandy areas to hide in, and no predators to worry about. 

You may also notice some markings on the back of the shells of the hatchlings. These markings help individually ID them so that each week when the keepers catch them up, weight them, and take growth measurements, they know who is who and can make sure each is growing well and is healthy. By the time a year goes by, these hatchlings will be about the size of a small dessert plate and will then be transported back down to Jekyll Island for release. In fact, on August 25, Keeper Ash Taylor did just that! Talk about a pretty special day! So please make a point to come and stop on by Scaly Slimy Spectacular to watch with us as our new batch of hatchlings grow over the next year! 

And if you are interested in more information about this project, check out the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s website:  https://gstc.jekyllisland.com/stewardship/diamondback-terrapins/diamondback-terrapin-research-and-management/

Until next time, friends!

(photo: Ash T.)

Kelly G.
Lead Keeper, Herpetology

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