Ornate Diamondback Terrapin Study Gets Off to a Mucky Start

By Brett Bartek

I wasn’t really sure what to expect this past Saturday morning. It was 55° Fahrenheit, overcast, and windy—freezing for Florida! I met up with Mike Mills (Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation), a willing participant (for now) in this endeavor, at the undisclosed park’s ranger station at 10 AM. Here, we were going to attempt to locate 73 head started Ornate Diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin macrospilota) for the first time since their release.

Young Ornate Diamondback Terrapins clamor for basking warmth at the
Owl’s Nest Sanctuary for Wildlife near Tampa.

You see, these particular 73 turtles have a bit of a backstory, and one that’s rather heartwarming. In October 2018, Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, ripped through the Gulf of Mexico. In its aftermath, 76 turtles were found strewn upon a West Florida shoreline—easy pickings for any roving predators. Luckily for them, a concerned citizen scooped them up and delivered them to the Owl’s Nest Sanctuary for Wildlife (ONSW) near Tampa.

After 5 months of care juvenile terrapins attain a larger size and are less prone to predation.

Under the supervision of sanctuary founder Kris Porter, the staff cared for them through the winter until they reached a size less prone to predation and ready for release. Prior to releasing the turtles, our TSA-North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) individually marked and PIT tagged them, with the intention of initiating a long-term post-release study on the group. In March, ONSW and NAFTRG released the 73 turtles in a beautiful lagoon, far away from any public access point, and where we felt these turtles would be protected and have the best chance at survival.

NAFTRG Director Eric Munscher takes measurements of a juvenile terrapin prior to release.

Fast forward 8 months later to Saturday’s “frigid” morning. The park ranger on duty was just as excited as I was to get this project kicked off and tossed us the keys to their utility vehicle (UTV). We would need this to cart traps and gear out into the matrix of salt marsh, ponds, canals, and mangroves that terrapins call home. Living exclusively in salt and brackish water habitats makes this species unique to all other North American turtles (excluding true sea turtles of course). It can also make them difficult to study.

The 73 juvenile terrapins were released into optimal habitat in a secure location this March.

We began our long drive out to the lagoon where our study turtles were released, following the directions that the ranger gave us—“stay left”. As we got further out into the marsh and the ground became wetter, and softer, I realized this area looked unfamiliar to me. I had only visited the lagoon once before, about two months ago, but this area did not look right. Unfortunately for Mike and I, this realization came to me just a little too late as the park’s UTV was now sunk in the soft marsh mud.

Not to worry! The UTV had a winch… which ended up being of no use to us because there wasn’t much to winch to in the middle of an open marsh. There were a few remnants of dead Brazilian pepper trees scattered amidst the marsh, and try as we did to position ourselves in the opposite direction with the winch, we only managed to drag ourselves deeper and deeper into the muck.

Field research does not always go as planned. This new study got off to a mucky start.
Mike Mills surrenders to the muck. After hours of trying to dig the UTV out, the team gave up for the day, ready to start anew in the morning.

With our pride buried somewhere beneath the UTV, I called the park ranger to come rescue us with their all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Maybe we could pull this thing out and have enough time to set a few traps before the we lost the light of day. After an hour and a half of patiently waiting, to our surprise—and confusion—the ranger came walking around the corner of the trail optimistically carrying a couple of short boards and shovel in hand.

“The battery is dead in the ATV,” he mentioned.

Using the shovel to dig out the tires and frame, and the boards to float the tires above the soft ground, we managed to get the UTV out of the mud and back to dry ground… just kidding, we somehow managed to bury it even deeper. By 3:00 PM we decided it wasn’t coming out and that we should charge the battery on the ATV and try again in the morning.

Getting the UTV out of the quagmire involved a team effort, time that would rather be spent searching for terrapins.

The next morning, as we gathered at the workshop, the rangers told us that the ATV’s battery was totally dead. We decided to haul a couple of old pallets and a come-a-long out to the UTV by hand. After fighting with the now thigh-deep mud for over three hours, we managed to unstick the stuck equipment. Our pride may or may not still be stuck out there in the marsh, though.

At last, traps are deployed in hopes of capturing the released terrapins.

With about two hours of daylight left, we had just enough time to throw our traps out and let them sit for about 30 minutes while we scouted the area on foot. Even though we didn’t catch any turtles this time, in the fading light, I’m fairly certain I saw two small white heads pop out of the lagoon in the distance. Were these two of the turtles we were haphazardly searching for? I guess we’ll just have to wait until next time to find out.

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This recapture initiative of TSA-NAFTRG represents the first of its kind for diamondback terrapins in Florida. Released at an age where terrapins spend much of their time in hiding, it will most likely take years to assess the survivorship of this group of turtles. You can help aid us in this unique study by DONATING TODAY!

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