Terrapin Tarmac Takeover!
Updated: Feb 2
John F Kennedy International Airport
There are a lot of stories about this month’s reptile. Mostly because they have managed to breach JFK International Airport. I’m sure the architects of the airport had no idea that in the pretty clean brackish (fresh and saltwater) were little turtles that appreciated the sandy fill around the runways for nesting. When one is located moseying on down the runway, the diamondback terrapin will be rescued, tagged and microchipped before placing it a safe area to nest or swim back into the brackish waters of Jamaica Bay. How bad is it? In 2011, they removed 1,300 turtles (all females nesting). And it does cause delays. The most popular place is Runway 4L. They come up from the water and make their way over the tarmac until being caught. Beyond the runway is this spectacular sand fill that was given to them when workers at JFK were constructing it.
One would think that the terrapins would be afraid of the airplanes taking off and landing but there is little evidence. I mean, they’re walking next to them, quietly singing “(I Always Get Some) Satisfaction” I know, the words are wrong. They’re turtles, what do you expect? They probably don’t know who the Rolling Stones are. They’re so proud - at only around 10 inches long, they are responsible for screwing up travel plans for hundreds of people. Passengers cheer as an airport employee picks up the turtles. The turtles cheer because they don’t have to walk across the tarmac.
In 2012, the Port Authority, in addition to fences, there are 4000 linear feet black plastic tubing in order to encourage them to stay in Jamaica Bay. And that has helped some. But they still manage to get a lift at high tide and crawl through the fencing. There are cameras everywhere so a person can get to the little one and either places them in the water or the sandy soil. They even have the capabilities to see hatchlings, which are the size of a penny.
How do the passengers respond? Actually, not much complaining. One passenger said, “the only excuse I have ever found endearing.” But if you find yourself on a plane delayed on Runway 4L, don’t be surprised.
Around 18 terrapins have been killed by a collision with aircraft. They aren’t likely to cause any aircraft damage, but their carcasses will attract birds that could cause bird strikes. Besides, who wants to hurt turtles?
Turtle, tortoise, or terrapin?
I’ll eliminate one right off the bat: Tortoises are land turtles. They have higher domes, feet that aren’t webbed with long claws for digging. “Terrapin” in the U.K. is basically our turtle. For example, a red-eared turtle in the U.S. is a red-eared terrapin in the U.K. In the U.S., except for the diamondback terrapin all of the U.S. aquatics are called turtles. This is a generalization as there are always annoying exceptions. Like the box turtle...which is land-based, so should be called box tortoise.
Time to talk about diamondback terrapins
Diamondback terrapins are a medium-sized turtle that live in brackish coastal tidal marshes from Massachusetts to Texas. Their skin is grey to white (I think they’re light blue) with dots, slashes and other little markings. And yet they weren’t named after the Morse Code… Anyway, their shells are brownish/black but it can be variable too. They have a diamondback pattern on their upper shells (or carapace). Size-wise, they are sexually dimorphic, meaning that one gender is bigger than the other. In this case, it would be female. She can get to nine inches. Most likely this is because the poor dears have to develop eggs yet can’t grow larger to adjust. Females also reach sexual maturity at six years. Males average around four years. They become sexually mature between three and four years old.
They are the only turtle that inhabits coastal brackish estuaries, tidal pools, and marshes. And their range is rather large, as mentioned about. So there just isn’t one species, but seven subspecies to cover their range. And I am happy to share them!
Northern terrapin (and the Chesapeake phase) - They can be found from Cape Cod, MA to Cape Hatteras, NC
Caroline terrapin - they are found Cape Hatteras, NC to northern Florida
East Coast Florida terrapin - surprisingly, the east coast of Florida
Mangrove terrapin - Florida Keys
Ornate terrapin - northern Keys to panhandle
Mississippi terrapin - extreme western part of the panhandle in Florida to central Louisiana
Texas terrapin - Central Louisiana to Corpus Christi, Texas
These cute little turtles spend most of their lives in the water, coming out to bask or lay eggs. Luckily, they have some adaptations that help them out. For example, they can tolerate varying salinity. They can spend protracted amounts of time in saltwater, and indeed, their skin seems to be mostly impermeable to salt. Lacrymal salt glands start working when terrapins become dehydrated and expel existing salt from their bodies. Terrapins can tell what the salinity of the water is and whether it is drinkable. They drink the layer of freshwater that tops saltwater during storms and lift their heads to catch raindrops. They are also strong swimmers with big webbed feet to swoop down to catch their prey. They have strong jaws to crush snails, clams, crabs, mollusks, shrimp, carrion, worms, periwinkle snails (a favorite), and insects. However, females have stronger jaws.
The urge to procreate occurs between May and June. The female often mates with multiple males so her offspring can have different daddies. Sometime between June and July, momma terrapin trudges out of the water and has to come to terms with this little thing called gravity. She finds a suitable plot of sand to dig her nest around four to eight inches and then sticks the egg-laying portion of her body in the hole and waits until she lays an average of nine eggs. Then she trudges back to the water and never sees her children again. She wants gravity, room to breathe, and interesting life in Jamaica Bay. But she’s just a humble terrapin...nothing like those highfalutin, noses up in the air gals being chauffeured around. Pfft.
In a blessed 9-15 weeks, around August to October the babies emerge from their eggs. The first they need to do is think about something important...the temperature while they were enjoying eggdom. The reason why is because the temperature during incubation determines gender. Higher temperatures produce females, while lower temps produce males. If the temperature is in the middle, then there will be an equal balance. Usually, the kiddos stay in their nests for the winter and emerge between April - May, and consider becoming cloistered monks or joining a convent to hide. There are gulls, herons, and crows - oh my! And they see these little penny-size terrapins as the appetizer. If they can run fast enough and make it to the water, they are less vulnerable to be an appetizer. And if it makes them feel any better, mom and dad have skunks, raccoons, and foxes - oh my! If they survive, they can look forward to a life span of around 30-40 years.
As of right now, the IUCN list the terrapins as near-endangered and the United States Fish and Wildlife don’t have them listed at all. They are listed in individual states as threatened and those states are working hard to save them.
From the time we came to this country, they have been exploited by us. They were considered food. In Maryland, there were so many that slaves protested the use of it for their primary protein source. The demand for turtle soup was so great at the end of the 19th century, 89,150 pounds were taken from the Chesapeake Bay in one year! In 1899, diamondback terrapins were considered a gourmet meal and everyone who had the money would go to Delmonico’s in New York City (the third most expensive menu item in one of the city's most expensive restaurants.) Patrons could order either request the Maryland terrapin or the Baltimore terrapin for $75.29 in 2018! I’m only mentioning this because it is astounding, but it explains that at one time, there was more terrapin than could be counted and we almost wiped them out to use as a $75 special for the sake of money.
And there are still dangers today and for the future. There are still places where they can be harvested for food. Others are harvesting them for the pet trade. Captive-bred and born would be much better for the terrapins and their owners.
Other dangers are road mortality, predation, habitat destruction, climate change, predation, Delta Airlines, pollution, plastic in their home waters, development on beaches, oil spills and inclement weather.
The diamondback terrapins are a unique turtle and are the only one to live in the brackish water off of the coast from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Corpus Christi, Texas. At one time in our history, there were millions of them, until a terrapin prepared by Delmonico’s for $75.00. In some areas they are able to sustain their population, in others, their numbers are declining. We have to work to make sure they survive for generations to come.
And here are some more photos
Female laying eggs...ouch!