Naturalist Fact: Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin centrata)


The only turtle that lives entirely in brackish water is the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin). This turtle is a habitat specialist, restricted to salt marshes, estuaries, and tidal creeks along the eastern and Gulf coasts of the United States. They are among the most variable of North American turtles, having an array of colors and patterns among the seven subspecies. The species is sexually dimorphic in that the males grow to approximately 13 cm, while the females grow to an average of around 19 cm and have a larger head and jaws than males. They also have a variable diet depending on geographic location, but common foods include periwinkle snails, bivalves, crustaceans, crabs, and scavenged fish. They are primarily diurnal and usually spend the night buried in sediment. Juvenile terrapins are rarely encountered. It is unknown what turtles two years old or younger do, as they are almost never seen.

The diamondback terrapin was once a food staple so cheap that 18th-century tidewater slaves protested the amount of terrapin in their diet. In the 19th-century, though, the diamondback made an unfortunate transition from despised staple to gourmet delicacy. Even though the commercial hunt has largely collapsed, these turtles continue to decline due to coastal development, disturbance on their nesting beaches, road mortality of nesting females, boat injuries, and pollution. They continue to drown in large numbers in pot traps designed for crabs. Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey laws require terrapin excluders on crab traps, and some states are considering requiring them. In Georgia the terrapin is considered a “species of concern”.

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Early Fall on Little St. Simons

September 22nd was the first official day of Fall, and we’re starting to see the effects here on Little St. Simons Island. The Muhlenbergia (also called Muhley grass) is starting to bloom, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are making more appearances along Beach Road, and the shorebirds are starting migrate in large numbers. Just three days ago, we counted 70 American Oystercatchers, 125 Marbled Godwits, and 211 Black Skimmers–all in one group at Sancho Panza!

Another fall staple is the fallow deer rut. The bucks have full antlers now that they use to mark and defend their territory. Just yesterday, we came across a spotted buck who left behind this excellent example of territorial behavior:

Traces of fallow deer rut. Photo from Britt.

You can clearly see where the buck used his antlers to scrape the ground beneath this tree. He then left his urine for scent and marked the tree as well; can you see all the broken branches?

Fall on Little St. Simons Island is a time of stunning floral and faunal changes. We look forward to sharing these with you over the coming weeks, stay tuned!


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Naturalist Fact: American Green Treefrog

Photo by Naturalist Britt

American green treefrogs are one of the most common species of Amphibian found in the Central and Southeastern United States. Their “cowbell”-like call can be heard around lakes, ponds, and even marshes throughout their range. They are so prevalent in Georgia that they earned the title of “Georgia State Amphibian”. While they are very common on Little St. Simons, they are one of only a small handful of amphibians found on the island.

All species of treefrogs will have large, round, sticky pads on their toes that they use for grip. To distinguish American green treefrogs from the others, look for a prominent cream-colored ventral stripe (as shown above). While American green treefrogs serve as prey to many species of birds, snakes, and fish on Little St. Simons, they are also predators to a wide variety of insects, including flies and mosquitoes. They also serve as excellent bio-indicators in the systems they inhabit. This is because they have extremely permeable skin that leaves them susceptible to contamination through contact. Next time you pick up an American green treefrog, make sure you haven’t applied bug spray!

Note: The proper way to handle an American green treefrog is shown above: gently hold the back legs.

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Sea Turtle Update: Coming to a close

Loggerhead sea turtle hatchling crawls to the ocean. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Folsom.)

Sea turtle season is wrapping up. Our last nest was laid on August 3rd, and all but 20 nests have hatched and been excavated. As the nests began to hatch, we discovered a few “wild” nests, ones that weren’t detected or marked right after they were laid, the only evidence being several tiny turtle tracks spread across the sand.  This brings our total to 116 nests–a record for Little St. Simons Island!

As the beach changed throughout the summer due to winds, currents, tides, and other factors, we accumulated a thick line of wrack (dead Spartina grass) at the base of the dunes. Most of the nests laid in the latter part of the season ended up in this wrack line and therefore had to be relocated, resulting in a high relocation percentage of 60% (70 of 115 nests). However, we are also experiencing a high hatching success rate. The average hatch success rate so far is 73%, and the majority of nests have had 60% success or higher. One of our nests that was relocated this season had 100% hatch success, which is almost unheard of for a relocated nest or ones left undisturbed!

Sea turtle technician, Natalie Folsom, carries hatchlings down to the ocean. (Photo: Britt Brown.)

Five days after we see the first signs of emergence, we will excavate the nest and take an inventory of hatched eggshells, unhatched eggs, dead hatchlings, and live hatchlings. This data is used to determine the hatching success rate for our beach. These excavations also provide a great opportunity to see live hatchlings that may have been unable to make it out of the nest on their own.

We have also had several sea turtles stranded on our beach this year. Two of which were large Loggerheads with splits in their carapace, possibly results of boat collisions. A smaller Loggerhead was found alive and transported to the nearby Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island for rehabilitation.
This sea turtle nesting season has been a busy one for the entire Georgia coast, with a total of 2,226 nests. For more nesting data for the Georgia coast, check out
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Midway through sea turtle season, and going strong!

Natalie, this year's sea turtle technician, with a Loggerhead she encountered on her way back to the sea.

As of June 20th, we are half way through the nesting season, and the busy period has commenced! We have had 29 new nests laid in the past two weeks. There are now 82 nests, with most on Rainbow Beach (south of where Mosquito Creek empties into the ocean). Forty-five of these nests have been relocated (54.9%), which is higher than the 30% guideline but acceptable for our beaches this year based on the large area susceptible to wash-overs as well as the sections of eroding dunes. 

We have had 126 false crawls thus far. As the number of nests laid per day has increased in the past week, there have also been fewer false crawls. This is probably in part due to the sand drying out after our long rainy period. The false crawl rates have been higher than normal this year on all of the Georgia islands due to the rain and heavy amount of wrack on the beaches.

Mark Dodd, sea turtle biologist with Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently sent out an update on the nesting season.  As of June 20th, we’ve had 1,043 loggerhead nests in Georgia, meaning that we may reach 2,000 nests this year! Here is a summary he included of loggerhead nesting in recent years:

Hatchlings should start emerging any day now! Only two nests on the Georgia coast have hatched, one on Cumberland (at 74 days) and one on Sea Island (at 67 days). Mark believes that the first couple of nests will take longer to hatch based on the rain and cooler temperatures of the early part of the season. 

Our first nest is at 67 days today, and we have three other nests that are past 60 days as well as 4 past 50 days, with 3 more joining the group tomorrow!

Stay tuned for hatching updates~

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Naturalist Fact: Glass Lizards

At first sight, most people would assume that any of the several species of glass lizards are actually snakes. In fact, another common name for these strange reptiles is glass snakes. They are also known, more accurately, as legless lizards.

The most immediately obvious feature of these critters is their lack of legs, which leaves them well suited to a lifestyle of burrowing and crawling through soil and leaf litter in search of invertebrates and other ground-dwelling animals. Indeed, they seem quite snake-like as they crawl around the forest floor. Closer examination, however, reveals a few key differences: for starters, glass lizards move with a stiffer motion, never quite able to master the smooth slithering of snakes. They also posses external ear openings, moveable eyelids, and a long groove along the length of the body, none of which are found in snakes. Perhaps their greatest difference, however, is their ability to break off and regrow their tails at will, allowing them to escape from predators with ease – provided they don’t get grabbed by the head.

 Of Georgia’s four glass lizard species, two – the Eastern and Island – are found on Little St. Simons Island. The Eastern Glass Lizard is the largest (up to 42 inches in length) and most commonly encountered. It ranges across the coastal plain and lower Piedmont of the southeastern US, but seems most abundant immediately adjacent to the coast. They can occasionally be found in good numbers along marsh edge and dune habitat.

Island Glass Lizard, Ophisaurus compressus, photographed on LSSI in April 2011.

While the Eastern Glass Lizard is secretive, the Island Glass Lizard can be considered truly rare. Only one or two are sighted on the island per year. It is a much smaller species, maxing out just short of two feet in length. Oddly, it has lost the ability to break off and regenerate its tail. It can be distinguished by the solid black stripe running the length of its otherwise unpatterned yellow body. Little St. Simons is one of just a few places where numerous Island Glass Lizards have been found, but it remains the most poorly understood vertebrate species on the island.

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A rare visitor…

Several days ago I set out with a small group of guests for what I expected would be a routine day of seining and surf fishing. While I pulled the seine net along the shoreline, I expected to bring in an assortment of small fish, crabs, and marine invertebrates.  I was hoping for something special like a bonnethead shark or a large redfish. The last thing I expected to hear when I finally dragged the net ashore were shouts of  “A turtle! A turtle!”

Sure enough, a small juvenile sea turtle was kicking and straining against the net. He was only slightly larger than a dinner plate, making him just a few years old (Loggerhead Sea Turtles can take up to 35 years to reach maturity). Everyone enjoyed an up close look at the very surprised turtle, and I quickly returned it to the water, where it rapidly swam back to deeper water.

Juvenile sea turtles of several species routinely visit Georgia’s inshore waters during the warmer months, foraging in our nutrient rich creeks, rivers, and shoals. It therefore wasn’t a complete shock to find one so close to the beach, but it was still unusual – turtles typically would be expected to shy away from such a slow moving net, and in fact, this was the first time one had been captured in years of seining on Little St Simons Island.

So imagine my surprise when, just a few days later, on another seining excursion, the net was hauled in to reveal another juvenile sea turtle! On closer inspection, it turned out to be the same individual. By now ‘puzzled’ and ‘concerned’ joined ‘surprised’ on the list of emotions running through my head.  Catching the same turtle twice in a short period of time didn’t strike me as a promising sign. A closer look at the turtle revealed several scrapes and cuts on the shell, some of which were still lightly bleeding. I also made a discovery that had escaped my notice the first time around. In my haste to return the turtle to the water, I’d completely overlooked that the little guy was no loggerhead at all, but a rare Kemp’s Ridley.

The Kemp’s Ridley may be the rarest sea turtle in the world. It certainly has the most restricted nesting range – until recently, just a single beach on the Gulf coast of Mexico. As recently as the mid-20th century, they nested in spectacular events called arribadas (Spanish for “arrival”), where thousands of turtles would simultaneously nest in broad daylight. However, as word of the location of the nesting sites spread, poaching of eggs and adults took a toll, leaving as few as 200 adults nesting a year – down from as many as 42,000 in a single day in 1947! Now, the population is slowly recovering, with around 8,000 nests per year.

Unlike our more familiar loggerheads, the Kemp’s Ridley is not know to nest in Georgia, though a handful of nests have been recorded in the Carolinas and Atlantic coast of Florida. The vast majority of the population may never leave the Gulf of Mexico. However, juveniles will often get carried by offshore currents out of the Gulf and into the Gulf Stream, where they arrive in Georgia’s nearshore waters. These young individuals will stay in our area for some time, feeding on crabs and other marine life before returning to Mexico to breed.

Given the condition of the individual in our hands and the overall rarity of the species, we decided to take no chances with its health. Fortunately, nearby Jekyll Island is home to a state-of-the-art sea turtle hospital and research institute. After a couple phone calls, the staff of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center arranged to meet us on St. Simons to take the turtle to their facility. After quick truck and boat rides, the turtle was soon in the capable hands of the Turtle Center.

At last report, the turtle was doing well and seemed to be in good health. He was eating readily and soon should be ready to be returned to the ocean. We’ll keep everybody updated on his status as we hear more from Jekyll!

Photos courtesy of Robin Lacey

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