47ABC joins Maryland Coastal Bays Program to conduct terrapin research

The diamondback terrapin may be the state reptile of Maryland, but not much is actually known about the species. Jennifer Rafter, who is the technical coordinator at the Maryland Coastal Bays Program says “diamondback terrapins emerge from hibernation in the spring, and when they first emerge they’re found in aggregations. Nobody knows why they gather in groups, they may gather to mate, and then they disperse as the weather gets warmer”. 

Because of this, organizations from the entire East coast take advantage of the grouping to try to get an accurate count.  47ABC joined the Maryland Coastal Bays Program along with a group from Salisbury University’s biology program to head out in the bays in search of turtles. 

Waiting for the turtles to surface requires patience, but as the turtles come up for air, the heads were counted.  The exact coordinates of the sighting are recorded, and combined with a larger data collection including water temperature, air temperature, and cloud cover.  This all then is funneled into a cumulative database for the entire East Coast. 

Since the 47ABC crew joined the team on an overcast day, not many turtles were able to bask in the sun as they like to do.  So the Salisbury University team jumped into action collecting rock snails.  The snails can host a parasite that can only get onto the snail’s shell by hitching a ride on the terrapin. Salisbury universty Professor Ann Barse says “If you find this parasite – pleurogonius malaclemys – in the cyst form on the snail, you can say without a doubt that diamondback terrapins are nearby.” The snail’s that were collected on Thursday by the team did not host any of the parasites they were looking for, but that is only one indicator of the terrapin population. 

The area of the Maryland Coastal bays are one of the more prominent areas that the terrapins are found, but such little information has been collected, it’s hard to really know teh true population.  Roman Jesien, who is the Science coordinator at the Coastal Bays program says research like this is so important. “We try to keep tabs on most of the organisms that are in our ecosystem, because if we lose one species then the others are endangered” Jesien frankly mentions to 47ABC.

Jesien also mentioned that research groups like his are stuck in a vicious circle when it comes to funding for research on a species like the diamondback terrapin. “That is the tough part to get the funding. Unless it’s endangered, but you don’t know if its endangered unless you look at it right? So it’s kind of a matter of if you’re not looking for it you don’t know what’s happening with it” he explains. 

Regardless of funding, the researchers tell 47ABC that scouting trips like the turtle count help give a more broad understanding of the species, and that can go a long way in the conservation of not just the turtles, but the entire ecosystem.

Categories: Local News