Critter Tale: Are Diamonds Forever?
by Chris Joseph, communications intern
They say that what is beautiful does not last. Such a statement may certainly be true of the diamondback terrapin, the endangered turtle whose Rhode Island populations are now dangerously low. The geometry of the terrapin’s trademark shell is unmistakable; it is one of the most striking patterns in nature. Its stands a fair chance of soon joining dozens of others in the catalog of discontinued designs. Alphabetically, you’d look for it between toad (Toad, Golden: Extinct 15 May, 1989) and tiger (Tiger, Tasmanian: Extinct 7 September, 1936). Beside “Terrapin, Diamondback,” there might be a caption: “Its majesty was unmatched. Its noble pattern continues to inspire.”
We might take a lesson from the terrapin; in Rhode Island, anyway, it’s a lot like us.
Of all the turtles in the world, the terrapin is the only species that lives exclusively in coastal marshes. Some turtles are equipped to come and go from brackish waters, but the terrapin thrives in tidal marshes, where fresh and salt water mix. Its special salt gland is the only adaptation of its kind. It must live its whole life right where the ocean meets the land.
Rhode Islanders, does this sound familiar?
We are also bound to the coast. Some of us would leave no more easily than the terrapin, whose biology compels it to stay. Our compulsion runs as deep as a good genetic design. That much we have in common with the terrapin: we are both coastal creatures.
Yet life on the coast is precarious. The terrapin inhabits the thinnest sliver: the tidal marshes that hang between the rivers and the Bay. These delicate environments are trapped between waterfront developments and rising seas. As storms strengthen, they are drowned and destroyed, and the terrapins are cast out where only roads and crowded waterways greet them. The loss of their coastal habitat is their downfall. Without a home in Rhode Island, our terrapins cannot last long. Humans might take a lesson from the terrapin.
Luckily, Save The Bay has acquired two diamondback terrapins, and is keeping them at the Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport, Rhode Island. The first of the turtles, Jerry, was found without an upper jaw, rendering him unable to feed himself and survive in the wild. Consequently, the state Department of Environmental Management issued a permit allowing Save The Bay to keep the turtle.
The second turtle, Phyllis, was donated to the aquarium by a family that had mistakenly taken the terrapin as a pet. Phyllis’s time spent out of the wild similarly reduced her chances of survival, and so DEM issued a second permit allowing Phil to join Jerry at the aquarium. The two recently got a new addition to their tank—a giant sandbox that aquarist Adam Kovarsky hopes will set the stage for a few new additions to Rhode Island’s diamondback terrapin population. Both are still getting used to it, but the conditions in the enclosure are perfect for Phyllis to lay eggs when she’s ready.
Today, the turtles are happy and healthy. With any luck, they will mate and bring healthy offspring. But the truth is that they are two among the last of their kind in Rhode Island. Individuals like Phil and Jerry will lead long lives in captivity, but wild terrapins face sinking ground if they continue to call the Rhode Island coast their home.
The loss of a coastal habitat is a warning shot to all coastal creatures. The diamondback terrapin have been among the first to face local extinction because it is a sensitive species, but the destruction of its wetland habitat signals the beginning of widespread coastline erosion. High seas and strong storms may threaten us, too, if we do not restore our coastal ecosystems and adapt our towns to changing conditions.
These corrections will not be quick or easy, but the story of the terrapin proves they are worthwhile like the turtle, our home is beautiful, but fragile.
Community members can visit Phil and Jerry, at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium, located at 175 Memorial Blvd. in Newport, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily through Labor Day and on weekends during the rest of the year.