The Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) or simply terrapin, is a species of turtle native to the brackish coastal swamps of the eastern and southern United States, from as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts and as far south as Cape Sable, Florida. The name "terrapin" is derived from the Algonquian word torope. It is unambiguously applied to Malaclemys terrapin in both British English and American English. The name originally was used by early European settlers in North America to describe these brackish-water turtles that inhabited neither freshwater habitats nor the sea. It retains this exclusive use in American English. In British English, however, other semi-aquatic turtle species, such as the red-eared slider, might be called a terrapin.
A picture of the terrapin, showing the diamond pattern.The species is named for the diamond pattern on top of its shell, but the overall pattern and coloration varies greatly by species. Their shell coloring can vary from browns to greys, and their body color can be grey, brown, yellow, or white. All have a unique pattern of wiggly, black markings or spots on their body and head. The species is sexually dimorphic in that the males grow to approximately 5 inches, while the females grow to an average of around 7.5 inches, though they are capable of growing larger. The largest female on record was just over 9 inches in length. Specimens from regions that are consistently warmer in temperature tend to be larger than those from cooler, more northern areas.
Adult diamondback terrapins mate in the early spring, and clutches of 8-12 eggs are laid in sand dunes in the early summer. They hatch in late summer or early fall. Maturity in males is reached in 2–3 years at around 4.5 inches in length; it takes longer for females: 6–7 years at a length of around 6.75 inches.
Diamondback terrapins live on a diet of mollusks, fiddler crabs, and occasionally small fish.
The diamondback terrapin is the state reptile of the U.S. state of Maryland and is the official mascot of the University of Maryland (the Maryland Terrapins or "Terps" for short). The species was once considered a delicacy to eat and was hunted almost to extinction. Due to this it is listed as an endangered species in Rhode Island, is considered a threatened species in Massachusetts, and is considered a "species of concern" in Georgia, Delaware, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia, but it holds no federal status.
Terrapins were so plentiful in the 1700s that Maryland slaves protested the excessive use of this food source as their main protein. Late in the 1800s, demand for turtle soup claimed a harvest of 89,150 pounds from Chesapeake Bay in one year. In 1899, terrapin was offered on the dinner menu of Delmonico's Restaurant in New York as the third most expensive item on the extensive menu. A patron could request either Maryland or Baltimore terrapin at a price of $2.50. Although demand was high, over capture was so high by 1920, the harvest of terrapins reached only 823 pounds for the year.