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Living Sanibel: Ornate diamondback terrapin

By Staff | Dec 13, 2017

Ornate diamondback terrapin. ERIC HOLT

(Malaclemys terrapin macrospilota)

In all four coastal counties of Southwest Florida the ornate diamondback terrapin spends most of its life in and around the mangroves where it forages on carrion, snails, crabs, and salt-marsh plants. Along the Eastern Seaboard and west to Texas it lives in salt marshes. The terrapin is equipped with a special gland next to its eyes that allows it to secrete excess salt. It has one of the most heavily embossed shell patterns of any turtle and a unique spotted lavender skin. It is also becoming extremely rare.

The reason for its demise is simple: it is delicious. Until recently the terrapin was hunted in much of its range for terrapin soup. It has also suffered from coastal development. Its biggest threat today is crab traps, which it enters to feed on the bait, then drowns. There are five subspecies in Florida and two more in its greater range from southern New England to Corpus Christi, Texas. Although these small reptiles can be seen in captivity, where they do well in saltwater aquariums, seeing a terrapin in the wild is nothing short of astonishing. They are shy and elusive turtles, and a terrapin sighting is a special experience for any nature enthusiast.

Florida softshell turtle

(Apalone ferox)

Florida softshell turtle. ERIC HOLT

A favorite food of the American alligator, the Florida softshell turtle can be found in almost every pond and lake in Southwest Florida. It is easily recognized by its unusually long snorkel-like snout and flat, olive-black carapace, which resembles stretched leather. The largest Florida softshell on record topped the scales at 93 pounds (42 kg). The average size found in this region is 25-35 pounds.

The softshell turtle is capable of pharyngeal breathing. This means it can bypass its lungs by taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide through a special membrane that lines the throat, creating a direct gas exchange with the water. Think of it as a turtle gill device, giving the softshell the unique ability to remain underwater for extended periods of time. It is, in effect, part fish.

The Florida softshell turtle is primarily a carnivore, dieting on insects, crustaceans, mollusks, fish, waterfowl, and amphibians. It has also been known to eat other turtles. Softshell eggs and hatchlings are heavily preyed upon by otters, raccoons, skunks, and snapping turtles. Adults are taken by alligators and humans, who turn it into turtle soup.

On land the softshell turtle can be very aggressive and should never be handled. It is capable of delivering a nasty bite, and because of the habitat it thrives in, infection is a strong possibility.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.