Wild Tales: The Shore’s Terrific Turtles

Fear one of the world’s oldest, slowest, self-habitating reptiles? That’s right.

By Tracey F. Johns // Photo by Jason Ondreika/Getty Images

No one reveres “fear the turtle” as much as a loyal Marylander. That “fear” however, has less to do with a turtle and more to do with cheering on the University of Maryland College Park’s “Terps,” or “Terrapins.” Students also honor a bronze diamondback terrapin statue on UMCP’s campus, with legend bringing luck and passing grades to all who rub its snout.

The diamondback terrapin is the state’s official reptile, and one of six families and 19 species of turtles living in Maryland. Box and water turtles make up most of the area’s native species, followed by sea turtles, musk and mud turtles, snapping turtles, and softshell turtles.

Endangered turtles native to the Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Shore include the northern map turtle, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, and Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle. Threatened species include the bog turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, and green sea turtle.

“Many people are surprised to learn sea turtles are native to the Bay in summer,” said Phillips Wharf Environmental Center Executive Director and marine biologist Kelley Cox.

“People report seeing them as far up as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, with five native species in the region.”

“The Eastern Shore is a great place to experience a variety of turtles in their natural land habitats also,” said Cox.

“Especially as the weather warms and they come out of hibernation along creeks, marshes and ditches, and from where they’ve dug in, like mud turtles.”

Turtles are cold-blooded ectotherm reptiles, and their temperature changes according to their environment. “You’ll find them out in the warmest part of the day in the springtime and fall or cooling off in the shade on a hot summer afternoon,” said Cox.

The Eastern Shore offers numerous streams, creeks, and forested areas to see turtles in their natural habitat, including Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Pickering Creek Audubon Center, Adkins Arboretum, Tuckahoe State Park, and Pocomoke River State Park, to name a few.

Cox says people can also experience turtles year-round at Phillips Wharf, where they foster and rehabilitate turtles and more with an on-site aquarium and the traveling Fishmobile. The Tilghman Island nonprofit takes various turtles to regional schoolchildren and events to teach about their habitat and the threats and opportunities for protecting them.

“Our Fishmobile helps bring the outdoors to students throughout the region,” said Cox. “We have diamondback terrapin, horseshoe crab, northern pufferfish, lined seahorse, American eel, flounder, snapping turtle, blue crab, spider crab, and more.”

Phillips Wharf released four juvenile diamondback terrapins along Black Walnut Cove on Tilghman Island this past October, with plans for another release this fall.

“Each fall, a nest will be accidentally dug up in a garden for example, and the newly hatched turtles and terrapins roughly the size of a quarter come to us,” said Cox. “Baby turtles are not easy to raise. They often require weekly nebulizer treatments to address respiratory issues until they reach a sustainable size, and we have to monitor and separate the aggressive and passive turtles to give everyone an equal chance of survival.”

Cox says it costs about $1 per day to raise these hatchlings over the year, with donor support covering most of the expenses.

“And should you find a turtle crossing the road, be safe with oncoming traffic before getting out and helping, and always lift the shell from the back,” said Cox. “It also helps to keep a shovel or strong piece of cardboard in your vehicle to help nudge turtles back to a nearby place. Snapping turtles can swiftly move their heads, so always be careful.”

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